We’ve all experienced it. We’re walking down Cornmarket or Broad Street, and someone walks up. “Please, have you got 20p?” The normal reaction is one of fundamental embarrassment. We avoid eye contact, mumble something about not having any change, and walk on as quickly as possible. A few of us might occasionally fumble about awkwardly and fish out a few pennies, but that’s about it. This experience, common to so many Oxford students, is symptomatic of one of the deepest and most persistent problems of Oxford life, homelessness.
The raw numbers at first glance don’t seem too large. In this paper in 2011 a representative of Oxford Homeless Pathways gave the figures as roughly thirty people sleeping rough, 90 sleeping in bedsits, and over 200 with insecure access to accommodation. It doesn’t seem so bad, in a city of 150,000 people, 0.02 per cent of the population. To take this view is to ignore the colossal human suffering of this situation. As winter draws on any student who has worked with the charities supporting the homeless population can tell you stories of handing a cup of coffee to someone shivering so much they can barely hold it. They can tell you stories of diabetics abandoned outside Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s, barely any medical help available to them. The real miracle of these people’s lives is sadly that they’ve lived this long. They even tell you stories of breakfast runs which encounter no homeless people at all, the population having been ‘moved on’ from what meagre shelter they have managed to find.
That’s not to say there aren’t many, many people and organisations working their guts out to support the homeless and the helpless in this city. Particular mention must go the Companions of the Order of Malta and to the Icolyn Smith foundation. The one sends out frequent soup runs through central Oxford, providing supper and breakfast. The other runs soup kitchens, helping the homeless get a hot meal. It should be noted that this is far from the limit of what either charity does. Even more important is the excellent work of O’Hanlon House, a dedicated Homeless Centre which provides basic dignities such as a bed, a shower, a decent meal, and even more importantly the support needed to get the governmental support of benefits, a council home, and the other simple help needed to get on the lower rungs of society’s ladder.
Where, might you ask, is the local council, whose responsibility the homeless population should primarily be, in all this? They seem set on ‘dealing with’ rather than solving the problem. In 2015 the council proposed the ‘Public Spaces Protection Order’ illegalising rough sleeping in the city centre. October 15 of the same year saw this act put into effect for three years. The council claims that it aims to stop beggars coming into the city centre for profit. Charity workers recognise it as an ill thought through attempt to tar all homeless people with the same brush. It is indicative of a degree of callousness designed to clean the problem from the eyes of the population, without actually solving it.
What then, can Oxford students do? The answer is not to fumble awkwardly in one’s pocket looking for those shreds of shrapnel which might just scrape together a lunch on a good day. The answer is to volunteer. Any of the charities which serve the most in need in our city are always glad for volunteers, and do not demand great swathes of time. A soup run need take no more than an hour, a kitchen a morning. More innovative events have included fundraising and sleepouts to raise awareness of the problem. We may not be able to solve the problem of Oxford homelessness ourselves, that will only come by finding these people homes and jobs, but the least we can do is strive our hardest to ameliorate it. There are nearly 12,000 undergraduates at Oxford. Each of us giving a small amount of time could solve this problem in short order. It is a moral imperative that we do.