The number of people sleeping rough on the streets of England has reached the highest level since current records began - with figures rising 15% during the last year.
According to Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government data released on Thursday, an estimated 4,751 people were sleeping rough in the autumn of 2017 - 617 more than during the autumn of 2016.
So how can you help? Here are a few things to consider, according to professionals.
Ask yourself, does the person need emergency help?
1) If the person in question is under age or is sleeping rough with a child in their care, this is a matter to refer to the police immediately as local authorities have a legal obligation to provide shelter to children.
2) If the person is in need of urgent medical attention - for example, if they have an open wound or appear to be seriously ill - calling 999 for an ambulance will get them professional help, and quickly.
3) Another immediate concern, especially in cold conditions, is where the person is set to spend the next few hours. Day shelters offering food and clothing and - usually during the winter months - night shelters that offer safe, warm sleeping areas, are in operation in many areas, so Google those operating in your area.
Will they be outside in sub-zero temperatures?
During extremely cold weather - specifically, when temperatures fall to zero degrees or lower for three days - special measures come into action with the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP).
When this comes into force, the local authority and other organisations in the area will work to offer extra temporary accommodation where possible.
Your local authority’s housing options number - usually easy to find online - can give you more information on whether SWEP is in place and what local shelter options are available.
How do I alert the local authority?
Assuming none of the above applies, and no immediate shelter is available, you can still help a rough sleeper get on the path to engaging with services - usually through their local authority. It is important, if you have been able to speak to them, that you get their consent to do this.
One option available for members of the public in England and Wales is StreetLink - a service that centralises reporting of rough sleepers.
A call or online referral to StreetLink will, where appropriate, be passed to the relevant local services - usually local authority outreach teams who operate at night.
Each council’s team has a different timetable dependent on demand, but they typically aim to reach a rough sleeper in one-to-three nights and offer support.
Sending an alert about a rough sleeper when SWEP provision is in place will ensure local services are aware of the individual and can refer them to this emergency accommodation.
Over the first nine months of 2017, the public sent more than 21,000 alerts to StreetLink, the charity said, connecting “thousands of rough sleepers” to accommodation and support services.
“Now that winter has set in, we’re asking people to download the app on to their phones, send an alert when they are concerned about someone sleeping rough and tell their friends and colleagues about StreetLink, so that together we can help support vulnerable people to get their lives back on track,” said director Matt Harrison.
Due to the high volume of calls, StreetLink advises the best method to refer rough sleepers is via the website or app.
What if I live outside England and Wales?
There is no equivalent centralised service for referring rough sleepers in Scotland or Northern Ireland. In Scotland, Shelter Scotland can offer help and advice, while people in Northern Ireland are advised to refer rough sleepers to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive as a first port of call.
What information do I need to give?
Local outreach teams will welcome as much of the following information as possible in order to locate a rough sleeper:
Night-time sleep location: This is absolutely key in many cases, as this is when most outreach teams operate. If you have this information, be as precise as possible.
A physical description: For obvious reasons, this can go a long way to helping outreach workers find someone who is sleeping rough.
Any particular concerns: Health issues (whether the rough sleeper has medication that requires refrigeration, for example), or other concerns workers should be aware of if and when they meet the rough sleeper.
Should I give my own money?
Many have different views and feelings about giving money to people they meet on the street, and there isn’t any right answer to this issue.
Some feel more comfortable donating to housing or homelessness charities - of which there are a number - to help tackle the issue.
However, if you are unable to help in any other way, there’s certainly no harm in offering someone a warm drink, some food or a blanket - or even just someone to talk to for a while.