Homeless young person standing underneath an underpass, wearing a scarf and looking to the camera.

Being homeless in winter

13 December 2022

What is it like for young people facing homelessness in winter?

Many young people that come into our care have spent nights out on the streets. For them, it’s almost incorrect to say ‘rough sleeping’, because it can be too dangerous to even fall asleep - often people like Jen will try to stay awake until morning. Following a breakdown at home, 16-year-old Jen wandered the streets in winter doing what she could to stay conscious: “It was November/December time… I’d hang about in McDonalds until they kicked me out, and then I’d try to find somewhere else warm. It was just so cold; I didn’t even have socks. I’ve got big scars on my ankles from where I was just walking about all the time.”

And while daylight may provide some solace from danger, it doesn’t mean that young people can use this time to recharge and catch up on their sleep. After walking around her local area or sitting in doorways until morning, Jen would then shower at school and carry on attending lessons. So many homeless young people do their best to stay in education, but find it hard to function at school – studies show that sleep deprivation makes it much harder for the brain to receive information, which means their grades suffer. Even short-term homelessness can have a long-term effect on a young person’s life.

Some young people, like Carrie, find their home life to be so toxic that they feel they have no choice but to leave. Carrie’s slept rough for four weeks as a teenager: “[My friend and I] would sit on the train station platform or in the toilets and curl up together just to keep warm. Other times we would sleep in shop doorways.”

Homeless young person in a grey hoodie, looking to the camera upset.

With winter officially here, this means thousands of young people are facing cold nights on the streets.

For Carrie, sleeping outside in the cold was easier than living in her foster placement: “Even though it was horrible and cold and I didn’t have any spare clothes, in my head it was still better than what I had run away from.”

Luckily, Centrepoint’s here for young people no matter their circumstances. September 2020 was our Helpline’s busiest month ever, and calls have continued to be exponentially high since. Centrepoint research from 2021 shows our Helpline staff noticed some worrying patterns in the types of calls they were receiving - one in particular found a number of young people were being told by their local authority to sleep outside so they could be ‘verified’ by outreach teams to prove they’re homeless before they can be offered support.

This winter has already been labelled as "dangerously cold" by experts, and it's been estimated that around 3 million low-income households cannot afford to heat their homes. With energy prices soaring and a significant cut to Universal Credit, it will be an incredibly tough time for some of the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable.

We can’t allow this to go on, and Centrepoint is doing all it can to ensure young people stay safe and warm this winter. You can help us in our mission, too – becoming a room sponsor means we’re able provide support for people like Carrie and Jen, giving them the immediate care they need so that they can start to look forward to the future. Thanks to the kindness of our donors, Jen was able to go back to college, and Carrie is about to embark on a degree in social care.

How to help a homeless person in winter

Being homeless in winter is ruthless, but there are certainly proactive things we can do to help those rough sleeping at this time of year – in fact, we have a whole blog post on some of the more immediate ways to help to help homeless young people in cold weather. The good thing is, there are endless ways we can do our bit to help. From winter care packages to volunteering, here’s some handy tips on helping homeless people this winter.

Donate winter care packages for homeless people

In the colder months, homeless people need warm clothes and essentials more than ever. It’s easy to put together a homeless kit for winter which, alongside the usual hygiene kit items such as soap, wetwipes and toothbrushes, can also include warm clothes and thermal items. You can donate items to local homeless charities or shelters, including Centrepoint – take a look at our Item Donation page to see the types of items we can accept.

Provide hot meals and drinks

If you see a homeless person out in cold weather, consider stopping and asking them if they need anything. This might include a warm food item, hot drink or just some spare change. (Donating money to a homeless person is a personal choice, but as our Director of Policy, Balbir Chatrik, says, “While a one-off bit of change can provide short term support, it’s not a long-term solution.”)

It’s important to ask the person what they would like, as they may have dietary requirements or preferences. Plus, taking the time to have a conversation can have a positive impact for vulnerable homeless people. Additionally, if they have a dog with them, you can ask if they need any pet food or accessories.

If you don’t feel comfortable approaching homeless people in the street, you can still help donate essential food items; you can take food to your local food bank or even donate them in some supermarkets.

Volunteer with local causes

Donating your time can be just as valuable as providing funds for homeless people in winter. You can consider contacting your local homeless shelter or charity to enquire about volunteering opportunities. We have lots of volunteering opportunities at Centrepoint, covering a wide variety of expertise – take a look and see if anything suits you.

Whether it’s working a few hours every week to support on fundraising efforts or simply supporting a local soup kitchen with taking food to homeless people in winter every now and again, your actions can make a big difference at this time of the year.

Purchase charity gifts

As the holiday season approaches, you can consider purchasing gifts for your loved ones that make a difference to vulnerable homeless people at this time of the year. You can purchase charity Christmas cards or buy Secret Santa items from your local charity shop. You can also do something special by surprising someone with More Than a Gift – our nifty gift cards allow you to give your friends and family a personalised Christmas eCard that funds everything from a Christmas dinner to a room for a homeless young person this winter.

Call for help

If you see a homeless person struggling in winter, you can refer them to StreetLink. This service aims to help rough sleepers over the age of 18 in England and Wales by connecting them to local services that can provide crucial support. You can use the StreetLink website or app to notify them of where you have seen a rough sleeper. You’ll also be kept up to date on what action was taken.

Alternatively, if you believe a homeless person’s welfare is at immediate risk, call 999 and alert them of the issue.

What to do if you’re homeless in winter

If you’re facing homelessness this winter, it’s important that you contact local services as soon as possible. You can get advice from your local council - they have a duty to help you find accommodation. You can also get in touch with local homeless charities for immediate support, including the Centrepoint Helpline. If you have nowhere to stay, they should be able to refer you to local shelters and hostels.

In these situations, it’s easy to feel hopeless – but we’re here to help. At Centrepoint, we’re dedicated to supporting young people aged 16-25 in England who are facing the risk of homelessness. You can get help now if you need support, advice, or access to a homeless winter shelter.