Wadham “making every effort” after squatters appeal for use of temporary homeless shelter

The College has responded to requests from 'Iffley Open House' to use empty garage owned by Wadham as a temporary shelter for rough sleepers

'People need homes - empty spaces need people': Activists lower banner over occupied former garage on Iffley Road. Picture: Iffley Open House

Wadham College has responded to demands from homelessness activists currently occupying its building on Iffley Road, saying the college is “making every effort” to “investigate the ramifications” of allowing the group to use the site as a temporary shelter.

It comes after a group, calling themselves ‘Iffley Open House’, started a petition asking the College to allow them to use the former VW garage, which is owned by Wadham, as a temporary shelter for rough sleepers.

They want to “provide secure shelter and basic amenities for people sleeping rough on Oxford’s streets”.

Around 36 people are believed to have been sleeping in the space, which includes a kitchen and showering facility, since New Year’s Eve.

As well as students, there are several local residents and housing activists, including some Green Party members, one ex-Green Party councillor and former Lord Mayor, Elise Benjamin, involved in the initiative.

The building has been empty since it was purchased by Wadham in 2015, and building work is due to start on the site in March this year, to develop it into student accommodation.

An online petition started by the group had reached over 1,200 signatures at the time of going to press. The group had also written an open letter the College, asking for their permission to continue using the site until the end of winter.

The letter states: “The situation for rough sleepers and homeless people in Oxford is now at a critical point.

“Oxford University and colleges like Wadham own dozens of buildings across the city which lie empty, some of which have been empty for almost a decade, that could be repurposed as shelters, social housing and social spaces.”

A member of ‘Iffley Open House’, Sandra Phillips, said in a statement to Cherwell: This building lies empty whilst hundreds are without a home or even a roof over their head. We all have an obligation to do what we can to help this situation, everyone is affected by the housing crisis in some way.

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A spokeswoman for Wadham told Cherwell that the college was considering allowing the group to stay in the building, but raised concerns over safety of those staying there.

She said: “Wadham is investigating the ramifications of this move, with particular concern for the safety of those who are sleeping rough in an old and dilapidated building, including in areas that are not designed for residential use. The College will be making every effort to speak to representatives of this homeless group as well as local residents, safety experts and the site developers.

“Wadham is currently awaiting planning permission for redevelopment of the site as student accommodation, significantly relieving pressure on local housing stock. As part of this project, Wadham College has undertaken to contribute more than £900,000 towards social housing provision in Oxford.

“Wadham College is particularly concerned about the problems of homelessness in Oxfordshire and to this end has a longstanding relationship with the Gatehouse homeless project. The College regularly fundraises for homeless organisations and donated much of the furniture from the Iffley Road site to a homeless charity.”

The activists say that homelessness in Oxford has trebled in the last five years and that the situation for rough sleepers has worsened after government cuts have forced closures of night shelters in the city.

In November, local authorities announced the closure of Simon House and Julian Housing, which is expected to cause the loss of around 202 beds over the next twelve months.

Ruthi Brandt, a Green Party Councillor on Oxford City Council, who has been helping at the shelter told Cherwell: ” I think this is an excellent initiative and I fully support it (as do the rest of the Green Councillors, both on the City and the County councils). We are in a real crisis at the moment – there are more and more people sleeping rough in Oxford (as is apparent to anyone walking in the city centre or along Cowley Road – the situation is heartbreaking), and with winter temperatures settling in, sleeping outside is even more dangerous than usual.

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“Services have been cut to the bare bones and the Labour city council has so far refused to dip into the emergency homelessness funds to deal with this emergency. So I applaud the people who have taken this step to help those of us who now need help, and I am hopeful that Wadham College will come through as a good and conscientious neighbour and allow the people to stay there in warmth and safety over the coming winter months. I am told that neighbours [near to the garage] have been very supportive, and some even donated items such as blankets.”

A group of Wadham students will be meeting to support the petition later this week, and a motion in support of the move is expected at this Sunday’s SU meeting.

Rowan Davis, a fourth year biology student, said on the petition: “As a Wadham student I am immensely privileged to receive subsidised accommodation in the centre of the city. In the middle of this freezing winter it is immoral to allow our community to suffer around us.”