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Thoughtful ways to help the homeless over winter

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Five constructive ways to help the homeless over winter, without giving money.

Homelessness, it's the social issue that's ripping through Australia like an epidemic, thanks to increasingly unaffordable housing, the tight jobs market, mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse and many other factors that come into play.

With winter well and truly upon us, I can't imagine how bleak life must feel for those living in their cars, camping in tents or doing it tough on the streets in near-freezing temperatures .

Walk down any busy city street and the evidence is everywhere. But less visible is the growing army of pensioners and families with young children living out of sight in their vehicles.

The realisation that most of us are just a few misfortunes away from being homeless got me thinking this week: with so many people reluctant to hand over money to the homeless for fear of enabling unhealthy behaviours, what else can we do to help?

Here's what I came up with:

1. Make eye contact. Homeless people often lament that they feel invisible and worthless on the streets. Their feelings of self-esteem are often shot to pieces. So smile and say hello. Stop for a chat. Ask what you can do to help. Maybe even offer a hug.

2. Make an extra lunch to take to work each day. Nutritious, tasty food would be difficult to source, since the cheapest available is often fast food. Prepare an extra meal, take in a flask of soul-warming soup, or even some seasonal fruit or muesli bars.

3.  Sort your wardrobe. We all have wardrobes packed full of unusued winter coats, beanies, jumpers, footwear and bedding. Ask your new friend if they can put any of it to good use.

4. Organise a clothing or food drive at the office. Use the event to raise awareness - and even extra funds - for charities that support the homeless. StreetSmart Australia, The Salvation ArmyMission Australia and The Red Cross are all active at street level. Ask your favourite charity what foodstuffs and clothing are required, then list them on your donations box.

5.  Create jobs. Need some gardening done at home? Or do you need a driver? How about some general handyman work around the office? Consider giving a homeless person a hand up with an employment opportunity. Think of how they'll benefit from their wages, a sense of self-worth and networking opportunities. But please remember to pay a fair day's pay for a fair day's work!

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