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Staying safe when sleeping rough on the streets

Sleeping on the streets can be dangerous and should only be done as a last resort if no other option is available. This page has practical advice on what you can do to stay safe if you have no choice but to sleep rough on the streets. It includes information on health care, veterinary treatment for your pets and keeping in touch with friends and family.

Keeping warm

If you have no option but to sleep on the streets, you should:

  • try to find somewhere sheltered
  • protect yourself against the cold by having a sleeping bag and/or blankets
  • avoid sleeping directly on the ground, for example, by putting cardboard or blankets down first.

Keeping safe

It is best to stay where other people are sleeping, as there is safety in numbers. However, sleeping in a visible place may put you at risk from the general public. Women may be more at risk if they are in an area where there are people they don't know.

Some areas have outreach teams who visit the places where people are sleeping rough. The outreach teams may be able to help you get into a hostel or nightshelter, or they may tell you about day centres you can go to.

Crime

Unfortunately, street homeless people are particularly vulnerable to crime. If your property is stolen, or if you are assaulted or attacked, you should always report it to the police. If you feel uncomfortable about going to the police, contact Victim Support Scotland, who offer practical help and emotional support to victims of crime. Visit the website or call their helpline on 0845 603 9213 (lines are open Monday-Thursday 9am-4.30pm, Friday 9am-4pm).

Scottish Women's Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland offer help and support to women who are victims of rape or sexual abuse. Rape Crisis will also signpost to organisations helping men who have been victims of sexual violence.

The Victims of Crime in Scotland website has lots of useful information on how to report a crime.

Health

Sleeping on the streets may affect your health. An irregular diet, lack of sleep and exposure to cold and damp can quickly make you rundown and ill. Homelessness can also affect your mental health, with problems such as stress, anxiety or depression often becoming worse. In addition, you'll find if you have any problems with drug or alcohol addiction, these will be even harder to deal with while you're sleeping rough.

Registering with a doctor

Although people sleeping on the streets have a right to register with a doctor, it can be difficult to get medical treatment. You may be offered temporary registration for three months. However, this will not enable you to get a medical card - you will only get this if a doctor accepts you as a permanent patient. You do not need an address to register: you can use a 'care of' address, such as a friend or a day centre. If one doctor's practice or medical centre won't let you register, don't give up; try somewhere else.

To find your nearest GP's surgery, you can:

Your doctor can also refer you to other agencies that can help you, for example with depression or addictions.

Drop in centres

In cities and large towns, there may be a drop in surgery for people sleeping on the streets. Health service staff also visit day centres and offer check ups and treatment. These may include:

  • nurses
  • opticians
  • dentists
  • chiropodists
  • doctors
  • psychiatrists.

Some day centres employ staff to help people with mental health problems or drink and drug problems.

You may also be able to get a bath or shower and a change of clothes at a day centre if you require.

Many day centres do not allow drink or drugs on the premises.

Call Shelter Scotland's free housing advice helpline on 0808 800 4444 for details of your nearest day centre or drop in surgery.

What should I do in an emergency?

  • Call NHS 24 on 111 for 24-hour health information and advice. Nurses can assess symptoms, offer practical advice and arrange for a doctor or an ambulance to come out to you, if necessary.
  • Go to your nearest Accident and Emergency department. Call NHS 24 on 111 if you don't know where it is.
  • Dial 999 for an ambulance.

Staying in touch

People living on the streets may lose touch with friends and family if they are moving from place to place. At the same time, friends and family may need to get in contact with you. Listed below are some ways of keeping in touch:

  • Some day centres will accept mail on behalf of people sleeping on the streets who use the centre on a regular basis.
  • Outreach teams may be able to pass on messages to your family for you.
  • Missing People have a free, confidential 24-hour helpline on 0808 800 7070 dedicated to children and young people under the age of 18 who have run away. The advisers can pass on a message to your parents or carers without telling them where you are, talk through your options and help you decide what to do next and put you in touch with local advice agencies who can help you. Visit the Runaway Helpline website for more information.
  • If you are over 18 you can call the Message Home helpline on 0800 700 740 to leave a message for your family and receive advice and help. Visit the Message Home website for more information.
  • Free or cheap internet access is offered by some public libraries and internet cafes if you want to send and receive emails.

Meals

In some areas, agencies distribute free food and drinks to people sleeping on the streets. They usually visit certain areas at specific times of the evening and/or early morning.

Day centres may also provide free or cheap meals to street homeless people. Call Shelter Scotland's free housing advice helpline on 0808 800 4444 to find out if there is a soup run or meal service operating near you.

Belongings

If you are worried about your belongings, some day centres can store them for you.

Pets

Unfortunately, most hostels will not accept animals, so it's best to check in advance before turning up with your pet.

If you have a pet, you may be able to get free or cheap veterinary treatment through an animal charity. You may have to provide proof that you are claiming benefits and that you have nowhere permanent to live.

The Dogs Trust offers free veterinary treatment for dogs owned by people with no fixed abode in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. You can get vouchers for the service from day centres and other homelessness organisations. Visit the Dogs Trust website to find out more.

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The important points

  • No one should be forced to sleep rough, contact your council for help.
  • If the council won't help then call Shelter Scotland's free housing advice helpline on 0808 800 4444 or use the Advice Services Directory to find help in your area. 

If you're still looking for help, try searching, or find out how to contact us

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