The best ways to help homeless people this Christmas

Christmas time can often be the most difficult for homeless people, as many families cosy up for the festive period, the best many rough sleepers can hope for is forgiving weather.

While caught up in the stress of shopping for gifts and preparing food, it can be easy to forget that, according to the most recent figures, there are around 4,800 people sleeping rough in England.

According to the Office of National Statistics, almost 600 homeless people died across England and Wales last year - almost a 25% increase in five years.

So what can we do to help the people suffering, as part of this growing problem?

Not all homeless people sleep on the streets. Credit: PA
  • Contact the professionals

If you're concerned for someone you think may be sleeping rough, the best thing for you to do, according to a spokesperson from the charity Shelter, is to contact another not-for-profit called StreetLink.

The purpose of StreetLink is to put homeless people in contact with their local authority and outreach services, which can provide immediate support to homeless people.

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.

This is passed by StreetLink to outreach teams who will use the information to find the homeless person and provide assistance.

Although every case is different, usual procedure is for the outreach team to "carry out an assessment with the person."

StreetLink say the outreach team will "then work with them to look at solutions to try and end their rough sleeping; one of these options might be temporary accommodation."

StreetLink can be contacted through their website, telephone number (0300-500 0914) and app, currently available in England and Wales.

The charity stress on their website they are not an emergency service and any member of the public with serious concerns for the welfare of a rough sleeper should phone 999.

  • Acknowledge and engage

Loneliness is not only a cause of homelessness - many rough sleepers don't have friends or family to turn to - but it is also a symptom, especially at Christmas.

According to charity The Bowery Mission, "homelessness brings a sense of loneliness that erodes the core of a person’s self-value."

They say simply acknowledging a person, either with a conversation or even just a smile, shows rough sleepers they are not alone and that people care about them.

"Homelessness puts an enormous strain on mental health with long hours of loneliness, isolation and sleep deprivation," says a spokesperson for The Big Issue.

They say: "The first way to help is simple one - speak up!

"A warm greeting, some simple small talk or even just asking a personal question can make all the difference."

  • Don't forget the pets

As you have probably many homeless people have a pet dog by their side and as charity Mayhew says: "A dog is often a homeless person’s only companion, but the added expense of vet and food bills puts an extra burden on people who are already in a vulnerable situation."

There are now several charities that specialise in providing help to the pets of homeless people, so if you're an animal lover, it could be an idea donating to DOTS, Blue Cross for Pets or Mayhew.

All three offer veterinary services and provide food to the pets of homeless people.

While pets offer a companion to homeless people, they can also be a reason for rough sleeping, because most hostels do not allow animals.

If you want to help a homeless person who has a pet, you can search for a dog-friendly hostel through the Dogs Trust.

Sam Malt, a 36-year-old homeless man with his pet cat Buffy and dog Hooch, in London. Credit: PA
  • Give a gift

When you're out shopping for loved ones this Christmas, if you're able to and comfortable, have a conversation with a rough sleeper to find out if there is anything they may need.

Charity Crisis suggest gifts such as blankets or warm clothing, like hats, scarfs, socks or gloves or even just a cup of tea.

Another way of gifting homeless people is to work with a charity who do just that. Charity St Mungos offer a service in which people can donate items such as clean clothes in all sizes, unused toiletries, full, sealed packets of dry, non perishable food within their sell by date, new socks, new underwear, new towels and new bedding.

For homeless people a dog can often be their only companion. Credit: PA

An alternative to this Crack and Cider, who bill themselves as the "world’s first shop for the homeless", a store where customers can buy useful items for homeless people.

The shop has a list of the most essential items a homeless person might need. All you need to do is purchase an item and the team will distribute it to a homeless person in Bournemouth or London.

  • Giving time is better than giving money

Most homeless charities say giving money to homeless people is a choice for the individual, however it is advised by HARP that not all people asking for money are homeless, and some need money to support a drug habit.

They instead suggest donating money to homeless charities who are better placed to assess the situation of a rough sleeper and are able to provide more tailored support.

HARP say "what people need is real change, not loose change" and The Big Issue suggests that instead of offering a homeless person money, put them "in touch with one of our distribution offices all over the UK to give them the chance to get themselves a hand up, not a hand out."

Giving a homeless person money often only provides a quick fix.

John, who is receiving assistance from HARP, told them: "Giving a pound to someone on the streets may ease your conscience, but giving someone some time and courtesy can make a bigger difference.

"If you want to help, support the charity that can give genuine help; help the people that help homeless people."

A great way to give time instead of money is by volunteering with a homeless charity.

Here is a list of charities who use volunteers to offer help to rough sleepers.