• There are more than 300,000 homeless people in the UK, says Shelter

  • More than 1000 people become homeless every month

  • 8 ways you can support those without a home

What can we do at this time of year to help those that find themselves without a home? Those that we more commonly refer to as the 'homeless'. The subtle change of language in the latter appears to depersonalise a group of people who often have, through no fault of their own, found themselves without the safety and security of a home. Below are the stories of two men I have met this year, Stefan and Harry. They are just like you or I. They have the same basic needs of shelter, food and warmth but for various reasons currently lack the safety and empowerment to provide this for themselves. I hope reading their stories - the little I know of them and what feels appropriate to share - helps you to see the people behind the label of “the homeless”.

April 2018: Me, my friend Scott and others are stood chatting outside The Brudenell Social Club, the unholy grail of small, late night live music venues in Leeds. We’re approached by a young homeless man called Stefan asking us for change. He looks about 17 or 18 years of age. We pass over what money we have in our pockets so he can secure a safe place to stay for the next three nights and chat to him for a while, some of us asking about other individuals who we have met in the past that we think Stefan may know. Stefan tells us of the circumstances which have led to him being homeless and how difficult it has been to find the right support to end the cycle of homelessness he has found himself in, “Do you know how degrading it is having to beg for money on a daily basis?”, he says. We all go quiet. “I can’t begin to imagine what that might be like”, I think ashamedly.

November 2018: I’m walking through Leeds city centre on what has now become known as Black Friday – the day when mass materialism seemingly rages forth - and I wonder if our already overburdened planet breathes a big sigh at our consumptive need for material goods. There are two men sat on the cold, hard ground begging for money. The images of shoppers - myself included -  pursuing the next retail bargain juxtaposed against the two men attempting to meet their very basic needs seems conflicting. There are all sorts of reasons why myself and my fellow shoppers are making our purchases on this particular day in the same way that there will be many, many reasons that have contributed to these two men currently sat on the streets asking strangers for money. I stop and chat to both men, asking them how their day has been, offering what change I have in my purse and where they think they will sleep that night. The second man, Harry, has 17p in his recyclable coffee cup, has been begging since nine in the morning and tells me I am the first person who has stopped to speak to him to all day. It’s now three in the afternoon. He thanks me for stopping and chatting to him, for making a fuss of his dog and tells me, “You look after yourself, love”. Again, I feel ashamed; ashamed that this has been Harry’s Friday and ashamed at the apparent disparity between our experiences of the same day. But I also feel humbled by his expression of careAn genuine and honest exchange but I wonder if either one of us feel better or worse for our interaction.

This year my forthcoming festive season will include material gifts – both given and received - along with the gifts of love and warmth, including the love and warmth felt for and from loved ones no longer with us. I feel lucky and grateful that this is the case. But what gifts could any of us be giving to those, like Harry and Stefan, that may not have as much as ourselves? Below is a list of suggestions you may want to consider:

  1. Consider donating food to food banks (or money - so they can buy wholesale food goods directly) that provide food to those in need. For list of food banks in your local area go to The Trussell Trust website.
  2. Consider donating various items to homeless shelters – this could be dried/canned food goods, hygiene products and/or warm clothing and blankets and unwanted books/games etc. Details of local shelters in your area will be available via your local councils website.
  3. Explore any voluntary help needed in your local area. Help out a local soup kitchen, outreach project or a local homeless charity. Increased provision at Christmas time may mean a requirement for more volunteers or there may be specific projects run throughout the year you can get involved in. The volunteering website www.do-it.org holds information on numerous UK-wide volunteering opportunities.
  4. Research whether your local council provides maps of food banks/homeless shelters and/or pay as you feel provisions so you can make yourself aware of where to signpost those you may encounter who are in need. Engaging in conversation with someone in need and giving them guidance could be the difference between them getting warmth and food or being out on the streets.
  5. Consider collecting items which you might put in a care package for someone like Harry or Stefan – food or hygiene products, spare blankets, animal treats for pets, warm clothing etc. One housing support worker I spoke to told me “thick socks and chocolate are never turned down – chocolate is a luxury item many people on the streets just don’t have”.
  6. Consider giving money – many may have mixed feelings about this but money will give someone like Harry and Stefan the power and independence to make decisions about what they need and what they want on that particular day – be that food, drink, shelter or something else. Empower with the pound.
  7. Always try and acknowledge someone who is without a home if you feel comfortable to do so - even a smile as you walk past is better than letting someone feel invisible or ignored.
  8. Research existing initiatives such sponsored sleep-outs which happen up and down the country like the ones taking place in Scotland through Social Bite on December 8th.

This December, myself and others are choosing to take part in the Social Bite mass sleep-out event, not only to raise much needed funds for Social Bite’s mission, but also in honour of our friend Scott who met Stefan on that night in April. Scott left this world in May 2018 but was a great supporter of Social Bite and made many tiny changes in his lifetime.

The mass sleep-out is just one fundraising event which Social Bite hopes will raise much needed funds in their attempt to eradicate homelessness in Scotland. This year they are inviting 12,000 people to sleep out on a cold December night to, as they say, ”accelerate the pace of change for Scotland's most vulnerable people”. By sleeping out this year we will be raising funds for some key interventions to help people directly out of homelessness including: funding for Housing First, a program for 830 people like Harry and Stefan in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Dundee and Aberdeen to get a mainstream property with wrap around support. The funding will also support two innovative programs to prevent homelessness when people leave the care system and the prison system as well as a host of other initiatives. As well as raising money to help people directly, Social Bite will also be campaigning both local and national government to bring an end to homelessness in Scotland.

I like to think that the night we all met Stefan, the chats I have with people like Harry that I meet on the streets and the fundraising efforts of myself and my fellow sleeper-outers will go some way to making a difference, differences both big and small that are needed to address the complex issues surrounding homelessness. These issues aren’t something to just  acknowledge at Christmas time; these are issues that need to be acknowledged throughout the year. Making your own tiny changes now and all year round, like the ones suggested above, may mean that Stefan, Harry and others like them, won't have to feel quite so "degraded" on a daily basis.

Anyone who would to contribute to my fundraising efforts for the Social Bite sleep-out on Saturday 8th December can donate here: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/vicleeson

Further reading:

Can you live a mindful life in the city?

Disability and society: how have things changed?

Dad committed suicide: now I'm trying to help other men with depression

Being a carer