In Brief

How to help homeless people this winter

Charities warn that snow and sub-zero temperatures could be fatal for rough sleepers

Charities are warning of the plight facing rough sleepers across the UK as the first cold snap of 2019 takes hold.

According to newly released data from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), around 4,677 people were sleeping rough in England in autumn. That represents a 2% drop from the previous year, but a 165% increase since 2010.

Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary James Brokenshire welcomed last year’s drop as a “step in the right direction”, telling Sky News that the Government’s aim is to “sustain momentum as we move towards ending rough sleeping”. 

But activists “have slammed the Government for not being open about the ‘full size of the problem’ and not including ‘hidden homeless’ people in unsafe accommodations”, says Metro.

Paul Noblet, head of public affairs at homelessness charity Centrepoint, told the newspaper: “These figures are only the tip of a much larger iceberg as they only attempt to count the number of people sleeping rough on one night of the year.

“We know that for every rough sleeper on our street, there are many more hidden homeless people who are sofa-surfing, staying in unsafe or unsuitable accommodation or putting themselves in desperate situations to find a bed for the night.”

Homelessness charity St Mungo’s says that rough sleeping “is an emergency whatever the weather...[but] in winter and freezing weather, people are in even greater danger”.

“Rough sleeping is harmful and dangerous, but when temperatures drop, lives are at risk,” says Petra Salva, director of outreach services at St Mungo’s.

“It’s vital that we get help to people quickly so we can save lives, but also, in the longer term, find people permanent accommodation and the space to recover,” she adds.

During extremely cold weather, when temperatures fall to zero degrees or lower for three days, special measures are imposed known as the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP). If this is triggered, councils across Britain offer “extra accommodation to rough sleepers, whose lives are at risk on the streets from exposure and hypothermia”.

However, the Huffington Post reports that it is not a foolproof system, as many homeless people are unable to access the shelters, and may need help from the public. 

So how can you help? 

  • If you see someone in need of urgent medical attention, dial 999 immediately.
  • Let rough sleepers know that emergency shelters are open as they may be unaware that the extra services are running.
  • Send an alert to Streetlink, an app run by a charity of the same name which connects rough sleepers in England and Wales to local agencies who can help find them a warm bed for the night. 
  • Buy a rough sleeper a blanket, a cup of tea, or a hot meal. “UK homelessness charities are almost unanimous on the question of giving money: it is better not to,” says The Guardian, but instead ask a homeless person what you can buy to help.
  • A friendly chat is always welcome. 
  • You can also offer to donate money to charities working to end homelessness or volunteer and campaign with them directly. “Your power to help homeless people extends far beyond individual actions and encounters,” says the charity Shelter

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