29 January 2020

three women, homeless

Taking action

Society must respond. Here’s how we can make a start

By Peter Hoskin


29 January 2020

By Peter Hoskin

“Drug use, domestic violence, alcohol, lack of family…” The week on Tortoise began with a podcast, and that podcast began with Toni’s personal litany of harms, the reasons why she is now sleeping on the streets. The reporter Audrey Gillan, and the rest of us, then heard from two more homeless women, Sharon and Nicky. Their combined stories are, in the fullest sense of the word, horrifying.

And so are the statistics. The plight of homeless women is an underreported issue and probably, we have learnt, an undercounted one too. Counts of rough-sleepers are biased against women, not least because they skip over the women who, because of the dangers of the streets, may hide themselves away, or try to pass off as men, or keep on moving through the night.

But it should also be noted that not all homeless people sleep rough. According to Shelter’s estimates, there are over 50 times as many homeless people in temporary accommodation, such as council shelters and B&Bs, as there are rough sleepers on the government’s books – and approximately 66 per cent of them are women.

What can we do to help? This was the question that rushed to our minds when we heard Audrey’s podcast, and many of our readers have asked it as well.

We certainly know what the government can do. Last year on Tortoise, we wrote about the example set by Finland: a policy called “Housing First” by which homeless people are provided with permanent dwelling before being linked up with services that can help with everything from getting a job to beating addiction. It’s encouraging that it is now being trialled in Britain – but it requires something that British politics has lacked in recent years, an unyielding focus on the problem over years.

For the rest of us, here are some of the options.

The government-funded organisation StreetLink offers a phoneline and an app so that you can alert them about anyone you see sleeping rough, and, in turn, they will alert the relevant local authorities. Of course, if you see a homeless person in particularly urgent need, then you shouldn’t hesitate to call the emergency services.

There’s varied advice when it comes to giving cash straight to rough sleepers – the safest course is probably to give them food, drink and other supplies instead. (And don’t forget homeless people’s dogs, which are as voracious in their eating habits as all other dogs.)

Otherwise, you can donate money to homelessness charities and groups, some of which we have already highlighted. Unhoused has a particularly innovative business model: you can buy items of clothing for yourself through their website, and the same items will also be distributed to homeless people. Street Storage are innovative too, offering lockers and storage units to London’s homeless people.

Many of the same charities are also in need of volunteers. Both Shelter and Crisis have online portals detailing all the roles that are available, from helping out in a homeless shelter to teaching computing skills in drop-in classes.

The Big Issue also holds an annual night walk in London, “in solidarity with rough sleepers who often find it safer to walk during the night rather than bed down” – who are very often women. You can sign up for this year’s walk, on Friday 6 March, here.

Homelessness can only be ended with sustained action from politicians. You can help to keep those politicians on the right track by writing to them directly – TheyWorkForYou’s search and message functions make that whole process straightforward.

According to Crisis research, many homeless people feel acutely lonely and isolated – or, as Sharon said to Audrey Gillan, “I’ve never had a best pal, I reckon. I just keep myself to myself, but sometimes you need somebody to talk to and a wee cuddle.” A few minutes of your time, simply chatting, may be one of the most effective and necessary donations you can make.

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