Don’t assume the only homeless people are those on the streets

In some parts of London, one in 25 people are homeless. 

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The arrival of winter so often makes people’s minds turn to homelessness. Suddenly the sight of someone shivering on a cold street becomes more disturbing, the heartbreaking image of a child spending Christmas in a B&B too vivid to bear.

It's instinctive to want to help. But it's not easy to know how. I've only been at Shelter a couple of months, and already I've been asked several times whether giving money directly to “homeless people”, meaning rough sleepers or people begging on the street, is the "right thing" to do. It's a challenging question.

There's nothing wrong with giving money away if you want to. But a random act of kindness, with no knowledge of the needs or circumstances of the person concerned, is not going to change anyone's life, or ensure the money goes where it can make most difference or is most needed. The vast majority of "the homeless" are not visible on the streets but hidden away in hostels, sofa surfing or living month-to-month waiting for the chance of a home of their own. Though visible and distressing, rough sleeping is far from the full picture.

The problem is huge. New research from Shelter shows that more than 300,000 people are recorded as homeless. To put that in perspective, it's as many as the whole population of Newcastle.

In parts of London, as many as one in 25 people are recorded as homeless. In Newham or Haringey, even Luton or Brighton, countless homeless people are heading back to a dingy hostel room or B&B every night.

Yet the vast majority go about their lives unseen. They are not begging for money in the streets. In fact, increasingly many homeless people are working, but with stagnant and pitifully low wages, cuts to benefits and rising rents, work these days is by no means a guarantee against homelessness.

At Shelter, we believe it's vital to keep saying loudly and clearly that homelessness is neither inevitable or excusable. We should not be accepting that one in 200 people in our country are homeless. Good advice, a functioning welfare safety net and enough genuinely affordable homes would mean fewer people becoming homeless in the first place, and would stop people languishing in intolerable situations for month after month – another shocking revelation of the new research is that over a third of homeless people in temporary accommodation will still be homeless in a year.

At Shelter, we make sure this unseen group of people are not forgotten. Our advisers work with them to ensure they get the support they are entitled to and find solutions.

But with more than 300,000 people waking up homeless today, my chief concern is that we simply can't help them all. For me, that’s a far bigger dilemma than whether to give money to an individual on the street. With a problem on this scale, how can we ensure that Shelter helps as many people as possible? 

You can worry about whether you should give money to someone you see on the street, but that very same day you have probably met another homeless person hidden in plain sight – you might be completely unaware that the mother at the school gate or the supermarket cashier has nowhere to call home.

My priority is making sure that Shelter is equipped to deal with this rising crisis. Support from my frontline colleagues transforms lives. Becoming homeless means losing the foundations of your life, the source of stability for you and your children, the sense of safety and security without which we would all struggle. It makes the difference between coping, holding difficulties at bay, and losing control.

Homelessness is dangerous and we can stop it.

To do so we need support. Not random acts of kindness but a deliberate choice to do something about the crisis that so many of our fellow citizens face. The homelessness that is hidden in plain sight because it happens to people just like us.

Shelter has launched an emergency appeal to ensure that no one has to face homelessness alone. To donate please visit shelter.org.uk or text SHELTER to 70080 to donate £3. 

Polly Neate is the chief executive of the housing charity Shelter.