Our guide to helping rough sleepers this winter

In the festive season, it is not only homelessness charities that are acutely aware of rough sleepers and those in destitute living conditions. It is impossible to ignore London’s growing homelessness problem when you can’t bear the ten-minute walk to the tube, let alone the thought of trying to survive a night outside.

The sight of rough sleepers in the coldest months can also bring a sense of hopelessness for those who can’t see a way to help- so we decided to make a list of things you can do to help homeless people this Christmas and in the following months, from helping them access outreach charities to recognising the signs of health emergencies.

1 – Download the Streetlink App

The best way to get rough sleepers the help they need is to use the Streetlink App or website to alert local outreach teams of rough sleepers. The more detail you can put about where and when the rough sleeper will be bedded down, the better. Describe their appearance and clothing and exactly where they are sleeping for the best chance of them being found. Outreach teams can offer a warm place to sleep and get the rough sleeper on the road to recovery with the support they need to get back on their feet.

You can also volunteer with Thamesreach’s London Street Rescue to go out with trained outreach workers and offer people experiencing homelessness somewhere to sleep. This can make a real difference, and the more volunteers there are, the more people they can reach and take to safety.

2 – Night Shelters

Supporting night shelters can help them to literally save lives by providing a safe and warm space for rough sleepers to stay. When the weather is expected to be below freezing for a few nights, emergency shelters open for extra space. Here is Homeless Link’s list of 2019/20 London winter night shelters, organised by London Borough.

Shelters often rely on volunteers- if you can spare the time, get involved! You can also contact a local shelter to see if you can offer donations of money, food, clothing, hygiene products, or bedding. Make sure you get in touch first to check that your resources can go where they are most needed.

Local to us in Lewisham are the 999 Club in Deptford, and Greenwich Winter Night Shelter. Check out their websites if you want to get involved.

Give clothing or bedding

If someone is rough sleeping, they are at risk of severe health conditions or even death from the cold weather at this time of year. If you are giving clothing or bedding, make sure it’s in decent condition and will last. Good things to give include:

  • Coats, hats, scarves, socks – you can find warm things fairly cheap in high street shops. If you have an old coat in good condition, consider donating it
  • Sleeping bags and blankets – if it’s raining, duvets may not be the best idea as they won’t last long and they can be absorbent
  • Polystyrene or roll mats- these insulate against the cold ground

If you’re not sure, ask someone what they need!

Food and Drink – and a chat!

Buying a cup of tea for someone is a great way of warming them up. Ask a rough sleeper their name and have a chat if you’ve got time- you’ll find you have more in common than you would have expected. Rough sleepers often find they feel invisible and ignored by society, and at Christmas passers by may find it easier to look away due to guilt. You might turn someone’s day around by stopping to chat, and that is well worth your 5 minutes.

Important: it is a myth that alcohol warms you up. If someone is extremely cold, alcohol can be dangerous. Alcohol makes you feel warm as it makes your blood rise to the skin’s surface but away from vital organs. This is why people who have been drinking are more prone to severe illness if they get too cold.

Health Awareness

Homeless people die in winter. According to Crisis, the average age of death for a male rough sleeper is 47. For female rough sleepers, it is only 43.

If you see someone who looks really unwell, don’t assume it’s nothing. Check and ask if they’re ok, and if they are not responsive, call 999.

Signs of hypothermia include:

  • shivering
  • cold and pale skin
  • slurred speech
  • fast breathing
  • tiredness
  • confusion

If you think someone has hypothermia, call 999.

People abusing drugs and alcohol are more susceptible to hypothermia- that often includes rough sleepers.

Drug overdose can also kill- according to the Harm Reduction Coalition, signs of opioid (e.g heroin) overdose include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Unresponsive to outside stimulus
  • Awake, but unable to talk
  • Breathing is very slow and shallow, erratic, or has stopped
  • For lighter skinned people, the skin tone turns bluish purple, for darker skinned people, it turns grayish or ashen.
  • Choking sounds, or a snore-like gurgling noise (sometimes called the “death rattle”)
  • Vomiting
  • Body is very limp
  • Face is very pale or clammy
  • Fingernails and lips turn blue or purplish black
  • Pulse (heartbeat) is slow, erratic, or not there at all

If you see someone who may have overdosed, call 999 immediately and put the person in the recovery position. Death from overdose can be prevented, as paramedics and some police carry a special injection called Naloxone which can save people who have overdosed.

Talk to Frank has a more detailed guide of how to help a drug user in an emergency.

Make sure you tell paramedics everything you know- they won’t call the police if someone has used illegal drugs.

Get Political

The fact this blog post has to exist is an outrage. Homelessness needs to be stopped altogether, which means the government need to do better. Since 2010, the number of people sleeping rough has risen by 165%.

We always urge you to write to your MP! Make it clear that this issue matters to you. You can find your MP’s contact details here. Going forward, we must insist that this government keeps their commitment to ending rough sleeping.

Hit social media while you’re at it- share this blog, let people know that these issues are rife in our society.

Any Ideas?

We’re always trying to think of the best ways to help people who are experiencing homelessness. If you have any tips or ideas that we’ve missed, do let us know!

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