This post has been requested by a reader. If you would like to commission a post, please contact me at howautisticfeels at outlook dot com.
How can I help my homeless friend?
Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, with 14,600 households statutorily homeless in the first quarter of 2017. Statutorily homeless describes people who don’t have a home, who haven’t become homeless due to their own actions, and who meet the government’s requirements for “priority need”. This number doesn’t necessarily include rough sleepers, and there are no rough sleeping statistics available for 2017 yet.
Autumn 2016 had 3,569 people reported to be sleeping rough. Again, this isn’t guaranteed to be an accurate number – there are people who will get left out of any assessment.
So how can you help? Assuming that you’re not willing to fling open your doors and let homeless people live with you (which is a perfectly reasonable stance, by the way), there’s still a lot you can do to help.
1. Say Hi
If you’ve got a homeless friend, I’m sure you’re already doing this, but if you haven’t then this one’s for you. If you don’t feel confident saying hello or having a conversation with us, just smile, nod, show that you’ve seen us. Sitting in the cold with people trying not to notice you’re there is tough, so just a little acknowledgement that we exist is great.
2. Hand over vouchers and coupons
A hot meal is a wonderful thing when you’re spending most of your time outside. Save up those takeway and coffee vouchers and give them to your homeless friends. You don’t need to make a big deal of it, just say “Hey, I have some vouchers for stuff, are these any use to you?”. Any coupon can help, even if it’s not for a free product. Having that 10p off an essential item can make all the difference.
3. Ask first
Getting a free sandwich is great, but lots of homeless folks have some kind of neurodivergence. Even when we’re really hungry, we can be picky eaters, and nothing makes me feel more guilty than getting free food that I really can’t eat. Just check in with “I don’t have much change, but can I get you a sandwich or something?”, that gives us an opening to state what kind of food we prefer. We might have just eaten and may find a tinned meal more useful.
4. Second-hand stuff
Homelessness comes with the problem of having very little room to store things, and having to carry everything when we move. Carting everything around in several different Bags For Life really sucks. When I was moving between sofas and camp sites, the most useful thing I had was a folding gardening trolley to cart all my stuff about. The next most useful thing I had was a good backpack. If you’re clearing out and find a good backpack, rolling luggage or similar, check in and see if your homeless friend might find it useful.
Most people have mobile phones. Even if they don’t have any credit on them, they can be used for emergency calls to 999. The problem is getting power into them when you don’t have a power socket. You can occasionally find a coffee shop with sockets, or a library, or even a charging station, and they’re getting more common, but it’s still hit and miss. If your homeless friend has a phone, ask if you can buy and charge a power bank for them.
Power banks are little battery blocks, usually with a USB socket in them, that allow you to store electricity and charge devices on the go. They also mean you can offer someone a full charge of their phone without inviting them home or taking away their mobile phone. I carried two of these when I was moving around, and would still be carrying one when I go out if it hadn’t finally broken. Power banks vary in price and capacity. When you’re looking for one, try to get the highest capacity you can. There will be a number of mAh on the packaging. The higher that number, the more energy it can store.
Once you’ve got a power bank, you can charge it up at home, then take it out to your friend full of power so they can charge their devices. Get it back for another charge when you next see them.
Water should be free for everyone. It’s vital to life, and yet it’s really hard to get hold of it when you’re living rough. Take a few bottles of water (reuse clean pop or squash bottles) when you go to see your friend, especially in hot weather.
7. Sun protection
Sun cream is expensive, and nobody needs it more than those who spend all their time outside. Even if you’re careful not to burn, sun damage can still occur, increasing the risk of health problems down the line. If you spot a buy-one-get-one-free on sunscreen when you’re picking some up, grab a bottle for your homeless friend. If they don’t use it, it’ll keep for next year as long as it hasn’t been opened. Sun creams usually have a shelf life of 12 months once opened, but check the bottle. The symbol of a small pot with the lid off and a number tells you how long it will last.
There’s a mobile app
starting up that works a bit like freecycle for leftover food. Unfortunately, it’s slow to get going and might not have really kicked off in your area yet. Check it out, though, and if your area is active you can donate food and recommend it to your homeless friends.
A lot of activities cost money, and unless there’s somewhere like a library to go during the day, being on the street can get incredibly boring. I don’t just mean a little bit boring, I mean crushingly, Groundhog Day, repetitively boring. Enough that it can start affecting your mental health (if the other aspects of homelessness haven’t done that already). Find out what your friend likes, maybe they would appreciate a puzzle book, or a colouring book and some pens. I actually started my handmade card business as a way to escape the mind-numbing boredom of spending every day in a tent.
10. Be a Pen Pal
If you don’t have a lot of time, or aren’t comfortable stopping and chatting for a long time, you can still be there for your homeless friend and get to know them. “I can’t stick around long, but I value our friendship, perhaps we could be penpals?” could be a good way to start this. Write each other notes, so those flying visits don’t feel quite so much like being brushed off. It really takes the social pressure off, lets you process things in your own time, and gives you both a physical memento of your friendship.