23 Jan 2015

How you can help rough sleepers during the cold

It is bitterly cold, you notice a rough sleeper in a doorway and wonder what you can do. Here is how you can help.

It is bitterly cold, you notice a rough sleeper in a doorway and wonder what you can do. Here is how you can help (Reuters)

Many of us – the journalists among us, anyway – assume we have to talk to rough sleepers and understand their predicament before anything can be done for them – in effect, “interview” them.

This can create problems if the rough sleeper does not want to talk to us, is not in a fit state to talk to us through alcohol or drugs, or is fast asleep and does not want to be woken.

Homeless charities say it is up to individuals how they respond to rough sleepers. After listening sympathetically to their story, should we give them money for hot food and a cup of tea, knowing this could be spent on super-strength lager or heroin? Or is it better to buy the food ourselves? Do we offer advice, or contact the local council’s housing department on their behalf?

Walking on by

Weighing up these issues – while hurrying to or from work – may explain why many of us walk on by, hoping someone else has the savvy to provide the help that is needed. But there is an alternative – a relatively new service called StreetLink.

This is who to turn to if you are worried about that man or woman you have seen braving sub-zero temperatures outside the local department store.

The charity, funded by the government and the Greater London Authority, says there is no need to approach a rough sleeper. Instead, get in touch with as much information as possible about the person’s location. Contact can be made by phone, website or mobile app.

StreetLink, which covers England, will then contact the local council if it believes this is necessary, but says there are cases where someone appears to be sleeping rough, but may simply be begging and have somewhere to live.

Since it began its work in December 2012, it has made more than 20,000 referrals to local authorities, three quarters of these as a result of contact from the public.

2,414 sleeping rough

According to the latest government figures from February 2014, there are an estimated 2,414 people sleeping rough on any one night in England – a 37 per cent increase since 2010.

If people are homeless and in priority need, councils can find them emergency accommodation. That is if they have children, are pregnant or have serious health or mental health issues. But Shelter says councils will “probably” not help those who are single, childless and in good health.

If this is the case, there are day centres where rough sleepers can go to keep warm. They can help with food, clothing and washing, give advice on housing and, like councils, make referrals to emergency accommodation providers. Under-18s are helped by council social services departments.

People without a permanent address can claim benefits. There are hostels for emergency and longer-term accommodation, as well as more basic night shelters.

At most hostels, rent is paid through housing benefit, while some night shelters and all cold weather shelters are free. A note of caution, though: according to Crisis, the number of bed spaces in England has fallen by 4,000 over the last three years.

Crisis has carried out research looking at how single, homeless people are treated by councils. Using “mystery shoppers” posing as homeless people, it says that in 50 of 87 council visits, these “shoppers” received little or no help because they were not considered a priority, meaning that local authorities did not have a duty to house them.

The findings were discussed by MPs during a debate about the single homeless in parliament on Friday.