Things you should—and shouldn’t—say to the homeless

A lot of times people aren't needing money, just a wee smile off someone or a 'hello'. Picture: Ian Georgeson
A lot of times people aren't needing money, just a wee smile off someone or a 'hello'. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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HAVE you ever approached a homeless person on the street? If you have, then you’re already doing more than most to help them. But what should you do after?

Last year, more than 36,000 homelessness applications were submitted to local councils across Scotland; 29,326 of those applications were adjudged to be either homeless or verging on falling into that category (these figures include the “hidden homeless”—people living in temporary accommodation—as well as those sleeping rough).

A homeless woman on Edinburgh's Princes Street. Picture: TSPL

A homeless woman on Edinburgh's Princes Street. Picture: TSPL

Homelessness remains a significant issue in Scotland, and also one of its most visible. But the causes of homelessness are far more complex and wide-ranging than the majority of the general public might believe: you could say the reasons hide in plain sight. Long-running and inaccurate stigmas portray homeless individuals living on the street as uneducated, unskilled, involved in petty crime, and addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. They are “the invisible people”, as Heather Arni, chief executive of Edinburgh-based charity Four Square, puts it.

Charities such as Four Square and others like it across Scotland are set up to help homeless people out of their situation by finding them accommodation and providing a range of vital services—or at least make their present circumstances more comfortable. As a member of the public, you may not be able to do the former, but there are a few things you could do to make their lives easier.

1. Say hello

Homeless people are lonely. Living on the street brings physical hardship, but the emotional toll can be just as great. “A lot of our guys, the first thing they come to me about is the loneliness of being homelessness, as if they’re second class citizens,” says Gary McHaffie, community manager of homelessness charity Emmaus Glasgow. “A lot of times people aren’t needing money, just a wee smile off someone or a ‘hello’, or ‘how you feeling’ or things like that. It’s being ignored, that they feel [most disheartened by].”

A homeless person on Edinburgh's Princes Street. Picture: TSPL

A homeless person on Edinburgh's Princes Street. Picture: TSPL

2. Ask whether they’ve sought help

Many of the homeless people Arni and McHaffie meet through their charity work have been referred to them by members of the public who have taken it upon themselves to approach people on the street and give them information about charitable services. “One of our young people had been sofa surfing for a long time and had run out of places to go,” Arni recalls. “He was sleeping in the car in someone’s street—he’d been given permission to sleep in the car—but some random person had been walking past and, seeing this, knocked on his window and said: ‘did you know there are services out there?’ and he didn’t actually, and he said ‘there’s Four Square, they have hostels. Get yourself down there,’ and he did.”

3. Give them money, or at least your time

When people hand over money to the homeless—or, as is more often the case, when they don’t—the suspicion among some is that it is funding a drug or alcohol addiction. McHaffie and Arni admit that drugs and alcohol are a problem among a number of homeless people (“Yes, there’s problems with drugs and alcohol, of course there is, but no more than the rest of society,” says Arni). But this premise feeds into an idea that homeless people are to blame for their situation, and are therefore not to be trusted to have autonomy. Assuming that a donation would be used for drugs or drink—and asking someone if it would be—robs people of their dignity, the need for which doesn’t lessen with the loss of a roof over one’s head.

4. Homeless people aren’t trying to trick you

Arni begins to tell a story of a homeless man she met one night, who she fetched a burger, chips and coffee for. He began describing how “there’s no in-betweens with people. People are either lovely like you and get me a coffee, or give me a bag of chips, or a sandwich, but the other ones are the ones that spit at me, kick me,” she said. He later told her that, when his cup has some change in it, he has to stow it safely elsewhere because some people would kick over his cup. By doing this, homeless people are trying to protect what they have—not con you into thinking they don’t have enough.

5. Don’t make assumptions about their past

Homelessness and substance abuse go hand in hand. Or do they? Arni argues that the majority of people become homeless because of breakdowns in family and peer relationships. Shelter Scotland statistics bear this out, at least partially: 28 per cent of people who become homeless do so because of household disputes; 26 per cent are asked to leave their present accommodation.

“I’ve seen a big change in the type of person that’s become homeless,” says McHaffie. “We’ve had two or three guys in and their qualifications and their skillsets are incredible. One of them actually built our website for us. A guy also does all the maintenance on our IT side which is second to none. I just feel that if you can get to someone and offer them help, and they accept the help, the sky’s the limit. Some of the guys that come here, I’ve been blown away by the stuff they can do.”

• To find out more about the work of Four Square, visit For more information on the services Emmaus Glasgow provide, go to


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