Jeremy Swain, Thames Reach
Jeremy Swain, Thames Reach CEO

Make sure your generosity helps rough sleepers

08 February 2018

Jeremy Swain, CEO of London-based charity Thames Reach, talks about how to best help the capital's rough sleepers.

This is a guest post and does not necessarily represent the views or policy of the Mayor of London or the Greater London Authority.

If you see someone begging on the street you might feel compelled to give money because you want to give to them directly and unconditionally. I understand that, and it’s great that the public cares so much about helping rough sleepers. But after thirty years spent working with homeless people, I know there are better ways to give. 

Unfortunately, handing over money directly to people begging can sometimes do more harm than good. Sadly, many people begging on the street are addicted to lethal drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine. Often they are in accommodation and receiving support from homelessness charities, but their addiction drives them onto the street to seek money for drugs.

You might want to give because the person begging says they need money for a night in a hostel. But London’s hostels and shelters are free at the point of access and provide food for those who need it.

Many rough sleepers have complex issues around physical wellbeing, mental health and drug and alcohol problems. Once we are able to get someone off the streets and into a hostel, we can start connecting them to a range of services and find them settled, long-term housing.  

Every night, Thames Reach outreach workers go out to meet rough sleepers, to help them off the streets and into accommodation. It’s exhausting – our workers often see the same people, night after night. Many rough sleepers have mental health problems and it can be a real challenge to gain the confidence of people for whom the move away from the street is a massive step. But we are able to help them throughout their journey.

Giving cash directly to people begging on the street complicates our work because it creates an incentive to live on the streets when we know that sleeping rough is dangerous and for some people, fatal. 

It is a brutal fact that in 21st-century Britain we still have people dying on our streets. When the weather is colder and people are feeling especially generous, begging can be quite lucrative and we see an increase in the number of people coming onto the street. During this time outreach workers keep an especially close eye on the people begging who they know are particularly at risk of suffering from a drug overdose or are in danger of dying because of an underlying health condition, exacerbated by being on the street. 

The Mayor’s campaign, No one needs to sleep rough in London, is a wonderful initiative because it brings together a range of charities including frontline agencies such as Thames Reach along with other organisations providing advice and assistance in different settings. If you want to be certain that your money is being spent wisely, any charity worth its salt will show you how they are making a difference by taking you around their projects and introducing you to people benefiting from their support.

By urging you not to give directly to people begging, I am not suggesting that you should simply walk on by. Talking to people on the street and showing an interest in their life is important. I will sometimes buy someone begging a hot drink or some food if this is what they need. 

Fifty-four of my colleagues are former homeless people – they are wonderful role models and living proof that you can escape a life on the street – for good. By giving directly to charities you will enable us to help people make the life-changing steps that can end their homelessness.