Seeing the person behind the statistic

5th March 2021

Local data reveals homelessness as a shocking rising issue here in Surrey.

Emma Walker, Community Foundation for Surrey Trustee, explains why empowering someone to get off the streets is the best warm drink that you can give.  

Several years ago, I was walking along Guildford High Street when I came across a young man in his early 20s. He was a Canadian student, had no money for rent or food and didn’t feel he could ask his family for help. I bought him a hot chocolate and a meal and chatted to him for a few minutes. I felt frustrated – ‘why hasn’t he got himself some help?’, ‘how could his family let it get this bad?’, ‘why hasn’t he got a job?’. I found the Town Rangers, asked them to assist him and went back to my nice warm house, feeling proud that I had done my ‘good deed’ for the day.

After reading Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari more recently, I realise that actually my actions fell short. In McGarvey’s words it was a classic case of ‘middle class privilege’. I had felt pity for the student, possibly even looked down on him in a patronizing ‘help is available, you just need to ask’ kind of way. Whilst my intentions were pure, my ignorance and personal bias had stopped me seeking out his personal story. I lacked the empathy to find out what had led to such desperate circumstances and most importantly what was holding him there so that I could offer meaningful help to him.

Fast forward a few years and we have become gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has become far harder to ignore the hidden deprivation in beautiful leafy Surrey. McGarvey talks about how the stress of poverty triggers hormonal and chemical changes in the body that negatively impact both mental and physical health, and therefore an individual’s ability to cope. Living in a state of ‘fight or flight’ means individuals are more likely to suffer from anxiety, substance abuse, obesity, inability to work, and so you can see how this culminates in an inability to pay rent and ultimately homelessness. Once poverty grips, it is like a vice taking hold, unless society can empower that individual to break the cycle.

The sad fact is that at the time, I reassured myself that it would be OK, that the authorities would do something. He had become just another sanitised statistic on the street. Becoming a Trustee, paying more attention to society, and challenging myself with books like Poverty Safari, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to ignore that Surrey alone has over 2,243* homeless people. Given I am not an expert in homelessness, I found myself unsure of what to do when faced with this situation again. Thankfully, some experts from Rentstart UK and The Hope Hub were kind enough to help. So, I call on each of us, as a collective to pay attention to every homeless individual, listening to their story and empowering them out of poverty. Together We Can.

If safe, stop, say hello and listen

Show warmth and compassion to people experiencing homelessness. There are studies that suggest we can (maybe subconsciously) dehumanise homeless people**. The more someone feels disconnected from society, the less they will engage with potential opportunities of support. How we look (or do not look) at people, and our attitude towards people, can have a profound effect on their perception of their place in the world. While it is inadvisable to give money to people on the streets, it is certainly important to treat people with a genuine empathy and dignity – someone who has a place in society and is deserving of help.

Be clued up on local support and refer them
  • Understand who to refer to in what situation. For example, if you think someone may be sleeping rough on a national level you can report it to Streetlink. Here in Surrey, there are a number of fantastic local organisations such as Transform Support & Housing. It’s worth also finding out what local homelessness charities are doing. Often people get bumped around different organisations, so finding a direct route for someone prior to referring them can make a huge difference to how they then interact with potential help.
Rally your friends and family
  • Keep up to date with what homelessness and housing charities are saying. Spread the word so that reliable, informative, and helpful information reaches as many people as possible.
  • Use your social media to raise awareness of the issues, but also what can be done and ask friends and family to do the same.
Be generous with your time
  • Give some of your time to organisations fighting to combat homelessness. Many rely on the help of volunteers and there are far more ways to get involved than might come to mind. Perhaps helping in the CRISIS delivery side, to working in the kitchen, or if you prefer behind the scenes supporting administrative aspects which is so often overlooked.
  • Equally you are likely to have essential skills that could help transform lives – mentoring clients in key skills e.g. IT, art or essential life skills.
If you are in a position to give
  • Donate items such as toiletries, socks or underwear (new only) as well as homeware items, food, bottled water, sleeping bags or flasks.
  • Support the charities on the frontline who are working with each person and their own individual situation.
  • The Community Foundation for Surrey can advise you on how you can work together with us to make a real difference, and support the amazing organisations tackling this critical issue, and many more!


Join us, for our upcoming Homelessness Webinar to learn more about how we can work together to address this issue locally. 

If you would like to find out more about giving with the Community Foundation for Surrey, please email us at


With special thanks to:

Ben Phillips-Farmer, Head of Community Engagement at Rentstart (UK) Ltd

Mags Mercer, Chief Executive at The Hope Hub

*2019  <>

**Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847–853.

Belcher, J. R., & DeForge, B. R. (2012). Social stigma and homelessness: The limits of social change. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 22(8), 929–946.