In Depth

How to help the homeless this Christmas

Tens of thousands of people will spend the festive season living on the streets

With Christmas fast approaching, households across the country are planning festive feasts and gift giving.

But many people won’t be spending the holidays in comfort and safety. Last year, a report from Shelter found that in England alone, 280,000 people were sleeping rough or staying in temporary housing and hostels on Christmas Day.

And the figure from the housing charity is likely to underestimate the true severity of homelessness. Crisis estimated that a further 71,400 people across Britain were crashing with friends or family on a short-term basis because they had nowhere else to go.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic is set to add to the problem of homelessness, with rising numbers of job losses and businesses going bust.

Charities have warned that the “double threat” of coronavirus and cold weather is likely to prove fatal for some homeless people this winter unless action is taken to get them into socially-distanced accommodation.

Here are some of the ways you can help this festive season.

Contact professionals

If you are aware that someone is sleeping rough and are worried for the welfare, contact the StreetLink charity. 

StreetLink puts homeless people in contact with their local authority and outreach services, which can provide immediate support.

“The public is asked to provide a specific location for the site, details of the time the rough sleeper has been seen at the location and any other information, such as gender and approximate age,” explains ITV News. “This is passed by StreetLink to outreach teams who will use the information to find the homeless person and provide assistance.”

Donate

Another way to help is to donate food or money to food banks or homeless shelters. The Trussell Trust charity website explains some of the different ways to give.

Donated items could include “dried/canned food goods, hygiene products and/or warm clothing and blankets and unwanted books/games”, says information site Welldoing.org, which adds that “details of local shelters in your area will be available via your local council’s website”.

Buy a Beam gift card

Some rough sleepers are referred to the Beam homeless support network. The charity provides “a dedicated support specialist who makes sure the person is mentally and physically ready to enter full-time employment”, before helping them “develop a tailored career plan” to try to secure a job, reports the London Evening Standard.

This Christmas, Beam is introducing gift cards to buy friends and family that include a one-off donation which the giver can allocate to any homeless person crowdfunding on Beam’s platform, with the money going to the individual’s employment training.

Volunteer

Homelessness charity Crisis is one of many organisations that offers volunteer opportunities to provide “immediate help for homeless people at a critical time of year”.

However, the charity warns that due to the pandemic, “Christmas will look very different this year and you may not be able to find your usual volunteer role”.

Like Crisis, most national charities explain on their websites how volunteers can help at the moment, or “you can keep it local by contacting your nearest homeless charity or shelter to ask what sort of help they need”, says HuffPost.

Volunteering options range from offering emotional support to cooking food or delivering donated items.

Former soldier Ian Northcott, who founded Socks&Chocs in 2010, follows the motto that “a lot of people doing a little is better than a few people doing a lot”.

The charity collects warm and dry socks and chocolate for people on the streets of Birmingham.

Offer a room

“If you are fortunate enough to have a spare room free, perhaps you could offer shelter yourself,” HuffPost suggests. “There are some brilliant charities helping to get people off the streets and into warm temporary homes.”

Such organisations include Nightstop, which matches people who are homeless with suitable hosts, and Refugees At Home, which helps connect refugees and asylum seekers with people who have a spare room. 

Lend a smile

Even if you aren’t able to take financial or time-intensive action, treating homeless people with the same courtesy and respect that you would accord friends and family can make a difference.

“Always try and acknowledge someone who is without a home if you feel comfortable to do so,” says Welldoing.org. “Even a smile as you walk past is better than letting someone feel invisible or ignored.”

Rik James, who previously slept rough, told the BBC that money isn’t always the answer. “Just come out with food and hot drinks,” he says. “Give them five minutes of your time, talk to them.”

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