How should I start a conversation with someone who is homeless?

It’s evident to anyone visiting, living, or working in Manchester city centre that there are an increasing number of rough sleepers, beggars and other folk without a home to go to on the streets of our city.

It’s an issue that frequently evokes a powerful emotional reaction, in a variety of ways. Some people like to give abuse, telling beggars that they should “get off their arse and get a job”, or swearing and shouting at rough sleepers, and sometimes worse. Others bemoan the lack of concern by the government or local services. But on the whole, most Mancunians are kind-hearted and compassionate folk who feel bad for rough sleepers, and who want to help in some way.


Here’s the rub, though. Even for many of the most generous and caring individuals, there are some huge mental barriers that prevent them from engaging with the men and women they see sitting on the pavement or lying in shop doorways. To try and unravel this thorny issue, we asked members of the public what it is that stops them from speaking to people who are homeless. We then spoke to two people with experience of sleeping rough, Jo and Barry, and asked for their advice to folk who want to talk to people who are homeless, but simply don’t know how.

JoSo, how do you strike up a conversation with someone who is living on the streets? Jo and Barry have immediate and strikingly similar answers: Treat them how you’d like to be treated. It’s never nice to be ignored, states Jo, with Barry echoing, “Treat them like an normal human being.” He continues, “I was only on the streets for a few days, but the biggest thing I missed was having conversation with people. Lack of conversation is a big hole for a lot of homeless people.

So, if we take it as read that people living on the streets want to connect with other people, and that many Mancunians wish to make that connection with them, what is stopping it from happening? For some it’s fear of the unknown. They think, “this person is as low as they can get; what can I possibly do to help?” Barry has some sage advice: “Starting a conversation doesn’t mean you have to hand over money or anything. It’s OK to explain that you don’t have anything to give. Most people just want to be talked to – it doesn’t matter what it’s about!

Other caring individuals have honestly admitted that they don’t want to be faced with the reality of homelessness. They recognise that it could easily be them on the street, but it is all too upsetting to deal with. What can you do in order to help? Barry and Jo agree on this one as well, and Barry spells it out “When you’re on the street, you can tell what people are thinking just by the look on their face. If someone genuinely cares, that degree of empathy is visible. And what will really show they care is eye contact. If you don’t feel able to speak, acknowledging someone with a smile and eye contact is even more important to someone on the street than it is to you or me. Even a nod is an acknowledgement that there’s a human being sat there.

BarryIt’s encouraging to know that there is something achievable even for the most introverted among us; surely we can all manage a smile and to look someone in the eye? But what if we want to go further: we want to start a conversation, but we just don’t know what to say? If you’re unsure what to say, just ask: ‘Are you all right?’ suggests Barry. “People are scared that someone who’s living on the street will turn round and say ‘Does it look like I’m all right?’ But it doesn’t work like that. Nine times out of ten, they’ll get a good reception, just like with any other group of people.

Jo has an interesting point to add: “The media are to blame for a lot of this,” she notes. TV and the papers report homeless people as an underclass, which makes people afraid of the response they’ll get. What they should show is the good side of homeless people. Like our mate, who has been on the streets for months. People don’t see him going round to other homeless people and handing out his cash when he gets his benefits, but that’s what he does. It’s the good stories that people need to read about.

We have a potential conversation opener then. But how can people follow it up? Many folk are genuinely worried that they’ll say the wrong thing and come across as patronising. People are too worried about political correctness,” says Jo. “People just want to have a conversation – they shouldn’t worry about getting it wrong. Some individuals have even asked, “Am I allowed to ask them if they’re homeless?” Barry laughs at this, “Of course they are – and of course people will say yes!” He has a serious note to add, though, “If people just ask that one question, it could lead to someone telling their life story. You might be the only person who talks to them that day, but that one question could lead to a really important conversation.

This leads into story, a time when Barry remembers a group of drunk lads out at night, each of whom had something derogatory to say to him and his friend. As the last lad walked past, a little way behind his friends, Barry stopped him and asked him to remind his mates that it could easily be them sat on the street another day. The straggler sat down, apologised for his friends, and ended up spending his evening talking to Barry instead of continuing his drinking. Barry was encouraged by this: If someone with empathy sits and speaks to someone homeless, it can have a chain reaction and influence other people as well.

This is all very positive, but there’s still another question, a concern expressed by some members of the public that they’re not sure if they’ll be safe talking to someone on the street, or whether someone will be drunk or on drugs. “Like with anyone, be wary if they are in a group, especially if they’re being loud,” says Barry. Don’t approach large groups on your own if you’re not sure. But for homeless individuals: how do you know what state they are in if you don’t interact?

Jo and Barry have some strong words to say about one group of people, though: aggressive beggars. Aggressive beggars aren’t homeless, and they don’t need the train fare they are asking for! says Barry. “These guys don’t sit down; they stand up and get in your face. Walk straight past these people. Don’t give them a penny, and don’t look them in the eye: just ignore them and walk away. Aggressive beggars give everyone else a bad name.

OK, so we’ve identified a number of ways to help caring members of the public interact with people who are sleeping rough or on the streets, and we’ve found out when we should avoid talking to people. But people have one final question: beyond talking, what can they actually do to help? It’s obvious from their answers that both Jo and Barry have been heavily involved in the Manchester Homelessness Charter. “Get involved with the charter!” they practically shout. “Join an action group, or volunteer your time at a charity, or donate something through Street Support. There’s loads that people can do, so there’s no excuse for not doing something!

We hope that you agree.

If you would like to do something to help people who are homeless but don’t know what to do, here are 15 things you can DO to help…

So, the answer in a nutshell?  Start a conversation with someone who is homeless in the same way you would with anyone!