Depressingly, when you’ve lived in a big city for a long time you can get ‘used’ to homelessness. The sleeping-bag in a doorway is such a common sight that its almost normalised. But when Bethan Whitaker, who founded ‘Helping Hands of London‘, contacted me it was a timely reminder to remember the people behind those bundles. The actual humans, up and down the country, who just spent another cold January night sleeping rough:

  • Let’s start with some facts about homelessness.

  • London currently has over 8,000 homeless people living on its streets.

  • Over 25% of the UK homeless population are in London.

  • 1 in 59 people in London are homeless.

  • The average homeless person is expected to live to only 47 years old.

  • People are 35% more likely to commit suicide if they’re homeless.

  • More than 10% of homeless people have been urinated on.

  • But…we can all make a difference to change these facts.

  • People become homeless for so many reasons – relationship breakdowns, abuse, mental health and addiction are all reasons that people end up on the streets.

  • One young man that I spoke to was from a wealthy family, privately educated and then when his parents died suddenly in a car accident, he lost everything and was on the streets within a year. He didn’t drink or do drugs but because he hadn’t yet finished his education, he was stuck. It could happen to anyone at any time.

  • Thousands of people will walk past a homeless person daily without so much as a glance but stopping to ask how they’re doing and grabbing them a hot drink is enough to make their day. If you don’t have time to stop, a smile will go a long way.

  • The best piece of advice I’ve ever had came from a book by Tamsen Courtenay called “Four Feet Under.” She made the point that whilst it is kind to buy homeless people a sandwich and a hot drink, what’s even kinder is stopping, asking them what their favourite food is and buying them that instead – they can’t just live off of ham sandwiches! I now do that every time and it makes such a difference.

  • I was recently chatting to a homeless man who told me it was his birthday the next day and someone had just bought him a birthday cupcake from Tesco – he was so touched.

  • Helping Hands of London is a project I started 18 months ago whilst working for a huge corporate company in Central London.

  • Every day I’d walk past at least five homeless people on my commute to the office, where lovely showers, endless snacks and three free meals a day were waiting for me.

  • The guilt was real. As I was sitting down to my full English breakfast and three course lunch each day, I couldn’t stop thinking about those just a few metres away from me who would love to have even a tiny bit of what I was taking for granted.

  • I stopped to talk to and in turn, became friends with many of these people as I snuck out breakfast, lunch and dinner for them. It was a quick realisation of just how little they had, compared to the crazy luxuries I was enjoying daily in the office.

  • One man that I spoke to every day on my way in to work soon became a great friend.I would sit with him for a while most days as he sold the Big Issue magazine and I quickly learnt his story. He was an army vet who had to leave after he was injured and suddenly found himself unqualified, broke and alone. He had tried to get jobs, but his lack of experience made it very difficult and his PTSD from his time in the army meant that his mental health was in a serious downward spiral. He eventually ended up on the streets. Despite all of this, he is the kindest, jolliest person I’ve ever met. Everyone who worked in the area knew him and would stop to chat – his outlook on life was spectacular. I remember once telling him that I was upset because it was tipping it down and I didn’t have an umbrella to give him and he just laughed and said that if it was raining, that meant a rainbow might appear and if he was covered with an umbrella, he wouldn’t be able to see it. He was an absolute inspiration to me.

  • So, with him in mind, and working with his advice, I started making up small bags of essentials. Next thing I knew, Helping Hands was born.

  • I filled these bags with toothbrushes, toothpaste, sanitary products, deodorant, baby wipes, snacks, reusable water bottles, hats, gloves, socks and hand warmers, along with a card containing numbers of local services such as shelters and abuse hotlines.

  • Friends and family (and even some complete strangers!) rallied together to raise £1,000, which I used to buy products for the first bags.

  • My desk was soon buried under mounds of tampons and granola bars (and even an unfortunate condom incident, which delighted the work group chat!)

  • Once the bags were made, I started handing them out. Luckily, friends and some wonderful volunteers joined me for a lovely day of distributing, laughing and sharing stories. I am very lucky to have such a great group supporting me in this project.

  • Some of the homeless people we reached told us they hadn’t owned a toothbrush for years. This amazed me, but when I really thought about it, didn’t surprise me.

  • Deodorant was seen as an extravagant luxury and sanitary products were a social taboo that they had to live without.

  • Helping Hands isn’t just about the bags though, it’s also an attempt to change attitudes. The Facebook page quickly took off with a large following and this became a platform to encourage respect and care towards the homeless people that we see every day. I use it to give tips and share stories about homelessness in London and beyond.

  • As I continued to fundraise, some amazing schools, companies and individuals came forward to raise money and donate supplies.

  • About a month ago I got a message from a lady called Maggie who asked for my address to post “a few” hats that she’d knitted; next thing I knew, 90 woolly hats arrived! They looked so professional and were wonderfully thick and colourful. People like her really make all the work and fundraising worth it.

  • Some people have put cardboard boxes in their offices for people to donate products, while others came forward with leftovers from events like reusable water bottles and tote bags. A local school has even done sweet sales and swear jars to raise money.

  • So far, we’ve distributed more than 150 bags. I originally thought I’d be able to make 40, so this is a massive amount!

  • I think a favourite moment of mine from the last 18 months was when giving a bag to a lovely lady at Vauxhall station, she insisted on me sitting with her and sharing a cheese and pickle sandwich someone had just bought for her. She told me her story and her sense of humour despite the shit situation she was in had me crying with laughter for a good half an hour. I saw her a few more times but she eventually moved in with her daughter – she was delighted, and I was so happy to see her off the streets.

  • The bags are now averaging at only £4 each to make up due to many items being donated and I’ve learnt to take advantage of wholesale discounts – Black Friday was a saviour for Baby Wipes!

  • Now the temperature is plummeting, it’s time for more bags to go out. My garage is currently overflowing with products for the next (and biggest!) distribution of 100 bags on Christmas Eve.

  • We’re a long way off 8,000 but it feels like we’re well on our way.

  • If you’d like to help out by donating money, products or your time, please follow this link to the Helping Hands GoFundMe Page or email me at bee@helpinghandsoflondon.com

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