Helping the homeless is something most of us think about doing when we encounter someone living with homelessness on the street. Maybe it’s in the moment, or sometime soon after we feel like we should do something to help, but many people aren’t sure of the best way to lend a helping hand. Should you give money? Should you give food? Should you simply offer a conversation? When it comes to helping the homeless, some of these things are more helpful than others, so below are a few pointers that will really help you make a difference.
The first thing to do if you’re interested in helping the homeless to any extent is educate yourself, so you can gain some understanding of rough sleepers, without judging them. Learn about the reasons someone could end up sleeping rough; it’s often not what you might think. These include a lack of affordable housing, loss of a job, divorce, illness, substance abuse, domestic abuse, amongst a whole host of other reasons. If you’d like to know more about the causes of homelessness, some good resources are listed at the bottom of this article.
It’s also wise to research local charities, non-profits or shelters which work towards helping the homeless, so you can pass on this information to any homeless people you meet. They might not be aware of the support available to them and might be grateful to know of organisations who can offer them food, shelter or even just a listening ear.
How to Act
One of the main things to bear in mind when approaching a homeless person is that they are in fact just that; a person. Helping the homeless doesn’t have to be difficult; all they might want from you is a little acknowledgement, compassion and to be treated like a human being. A homeless person might spend their whole day being ignored, so a smile and a simple ‘hello’ can go a long way towards improving someone’s day.
When striking up a conversation with someone on the streets, show respect and compassion towards them and their situation. Firstly, make eye contact so that they feel valued and second, if the person is sitting down, try to speak to them at their eye level, by crouching down or asking if you can sit with them for a short while. One of the easiest ways to help is to ask them if there’s anything they need and then offer to buy them something if you can afford it. Sometimes this can be as simple as offering to buy them a cup of tea or coffee.
If you see someone who looks to be in immediate danger, call the emergency services and let them know where they are.
Sometimes the homeless person you approach might not want to talk to you, or might not be in an appropriate state of mind for conversation. You can still help by taking the time to find out which organisations in your area are geared towards helping the homeless people in your area. These organisations – be it a shelter, soup kitchen, registered charity, or non-profit etc – will almost always appreciate your support. Be aware that these helping the homeless organisations all have different needs; some may ask for lightly worn clothing, others might prefer monetary donations to provide meals and other services to their homeless clients. Talk to them and ask what they need and if you can help, donate whatever you are comfortable with. Whatever you do, don’t just send a bunch of old clothes or some tinned food etc to one of these organisations unsolicited, as while they’d probably appreciate that your heart’s in the right place, they might not be set up to receive these items.
What to Give
Remember, when you see someone begging in the streets, that not everyone who begs is actually homeless. This is why a lot of charities and shelters advise that you might not be helping the homeless at all by handing out money, which could be spent on alcohol or drugs. While providing short term mental escape from their situation, these do not actually help a person and could result in them being left in a worse mental state or in a physically vulnerable condition, unable to look after or protect themselves.
In many cases, it’s much more helpful to donate food, clothes and other useful items, instead of money. In addition to this, care packages containing a few essential, low-cost items are a great way of helping the homeless. Below is a list of items to consider giving:
Food & Drink
- Water bottle or a soft drink
- Canned food with pull tabs that can be eaten cold, such as tinned fruit or tuna
- Peanut butter
- Cereal or granola bars
- Tea or coffee or another hot drink
- Pet food
You could also consider donating a gift card for a food shop or café (we suggest ones that don’t serve alcohol). This way, they can choose the meal they fancy the most, and even escape from the elements for a short while.
Additionally, more and more cafes are choosing to try helping the homeless with a pending coffee scheme, whereby you can buy an extra coffee and leave it as ‘pending’ until someone comes in who can’t afford one. Ask if your regular cafe does this, and if so contribute. If they don’t, make a friendly suggestion to their management that they consider starting a similar scheme.
- Alcohol hand sanitizer
- Feminine hygiene products
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Dental floss
- Nail clippers
- Lip balm
- Comb or brush
- Hand lotion
Other Useful Items
- Sleeping bags
- An encouraging personalized note
Helping the homeless with a package made up of some of the above items is a great way to show you care, though bear in mind that the essentials required by a homeless person vary from place to place and season to season. For example, in the winter, great items to give are gloves, hats and heat packs, as well as a decent jacket or even a sleeping bag. However, the summer heat means that summer essentials include sun cream, a sun hat, or perhaps a frozen bottle of water to help protect from the sun and cool down.
Another great thing to include when helping the homeless with care packages is a list of free resources and helplines in your local community. A rough sleeper might not always be aware of the assistance available to them, so a list like this could get them the support they need to get off the streets.
Giving clothes is a great way to begin helping the homeless in your area. The below items are always near the top of many shelters ‘items we need’ lists:
- Coats / jackets
- Socks (new pairs)
- Base layers (t-shirts etc.)
- Sweaters / Hoodies
- Trousers / pants
Of course, not everyone is the same shoe size as you and your old jacket might not fit the nearest homeless person who you’d like to donate it to. It’s often better to donate clothes through an organization who can sort them and distribute them appropriately. If you have lightly worn clothes consider donating them to a local shelter, but make sure to contact them first and ask what they need, before wasting a journey turning up with bags of old clothes.
Alternatively, you could consider running a coat drive. One Warm Coat (https://www.onewarmcoat.org/ ) is a US national non-profit organization that works to provide a free, warm coat to any person in need. They support individuals, groups, companies and organizations across the U.S. by providing the tools and resources needed for helping the homeless, collecting lightly used coats for donation to people in need.
Similarly in the UK, Wrap Up London https://wrapuplondon.org.uk/ run a yearly winter coat drive to gather coats for the local homeless. Don’t live in the US or UK? Start by searching the web for “coat drive UK” (change UK for your country / city) to find out which organisations arrange coat drives near you.
What to Do Next
Depending on where you live, there might be a local or national organisation nearby, for when you come across a homeless person who looks as though they need a helping hand. For example, StreetLink (streetlink.org.uk) work in the UK towards helping the homeless across England and Wales, by connecting people sleeping rough with local services that can support them. If you don’t live in the UK, there may be a similar organisation in your home country – the best place to start is by searching the web.
If you live in the UK and the weather looks to be getting bad, get in touch with your local council to ask about SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency Protocol). This is an initiative whereby local authorities aim to provide emergency shelter to homeless people in extreme and dangerous weather conditions. If there is a local SWEP location helping the homeless to escape the weather in your area, point people you see in the right direction so they can get shelter.
Similar to this in the US, some fire stations, libraries or recreation centers open their doors on especially cold nights as emergency shelters, or warming centers. Make a point of knowing what sort of emergency weather services are available to help the homeless people in your area, so you can pass this information on if you encounter anyone who needs help during extreme weather events.
For ongoing ways to keep helping the homeless, you could consider calling up your local shelters to find out which items are needed and try and source them. It’s amazing what items you can find when you have a clear out, that would be gratefully received by a homeless shelter.
If someone is begging aggressively, or even harassing you, call the police and report the incident. Again, if someone looks to be in any immediate danger, call the emergency services to get them the help they need.
There are many gestures big and small which can contribute towards helping the homeless. If you’re looking to work towards helping the homeless, you can do so with our NESSH Jacket. We’ve designed a jacket tailored to the specific needs of a homeless person, and for every NESSH Jacket we sell, we give one of these jackets away as part of our #OneSoldOneGiven initiative. This means that by purchasing one of our NESSH jackets, you are also helping the homeless. Take a look at our website to find out about our story and the only jacket in the world which keeps two people warm.
Find out more about the causes of homelessness:
Homeless Link: https://www.homeless.org.uk/facts-figures
National Alliance to End Homelessness: https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/
National Coalition for the Homeless: https://nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/
Europe: FEANTSA: https://www.feantsa.org/en/about-us/faq