Do colleges have an imperative to help the homeless?

Michael Shao and Matt Roller debate the role of colleges in helping to solve Oxford's homelessness crisis

YES: The homeless are our neighbours and we have a responsibility to help them

Michael Shao

The following quote by John le Carré could not be more literal to the homeless people who reside in the Iffley Open House: “Home’s where you go when you run out of homes.” Around 36 people sleep in the space, which includes a kitchen and showering facilities. A petition has circulated with wide support to allow the squatters to stay, and Wadham students have supported the motion as well.

Squatters are indicative of many things. A place I love and hold dear to my heart, Motown, the lovely city of Detroit, home to several of my relatives, faces the problem of abandoned houses rife with squatters. Contrary to popular belief, many case studies done on the squatting ‘problem’ in Detroit have actually shown that in the majority of cases, squatters are much preferred to the counterfactual of abandoned houses with nobody living in them.

In the Brightmoor neighbourhood of Detroit, neighbours adjacent to an abandoned farmhouse actively advertised the empty space for squatters to take up. Their logic, one formed carefully after consideration of their personal observations over the years was that lawlessness would take over in the absence of tenancy by scrap merchants who sought to take apart the house piece by piece to sell. The physical evidence of houses that look like disassembled trucks is all too damning.

By no means am I comparing Oxford real estate to the much more severe problem of property abandonment in the municipality of Detroit: that could not even come close. What is noteworthy, however, is perhaps the parallel as to how certain people have come to view this issue, primarily critics of the Iffley housing project who seem to be in utter disbelief that people who have nowhere to turn to are living in a property that is not necessarily their own: not including Wadham, of course, who chose to supplement their decision with extra initiatives and well-grounded reasoning. In Brightmoor, the saying goes “Squatters mow the lawn.”

More optimistically, neighbours of the Iffley House share similar sentiments to the aforementioned neighbours of squatters in Detroit: instead of typically insisting that they move out in fear of loss of property value or endangerment, the neighbours near to the garage have been very supportive and some have even donated blankets to the temporary tenants.

The solutions that Wadham has proposed as an alternative, while with incredibly good intentions, are noted to be poor answers to a homeless problem that seems impossible to tackle.

The majority of people who are homeless are usually only homeless for a short period of time. Homelessness generally has a power-law distribution. The majority do move on with their lives, but a few stay chronically homeless, and those are also typically the ones who face serious mental illness issues and suffer from drug addiction abuse.

Typical investiture in shelters and donations like the furniture that Wadham has contributed to homeless projects, while an effective short-term solution, is impractical in the grand scheme of things.

Shelters do usually offer a place of residence, but even the ones in Oxford kick out their residents after six to nine months. Let’s not pretend that the ones who end up squatting haven’t already explored their options. For these squatters, perhaps suffering from more chronic homelessness, the squatting is the best resource they have at their disposal.

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And as Wadham students have noted, if there are numerous other buildings that remained abandoned as well, it is a moral shame for Wadham not to contribute to alleviating the problem of homelessness.

Wadham does, however, plan to take the traditional road with the old garage that the city of Detroit has taken to address urban decline: the demolition of the building at the end of February, when conditions will still be relatively frigid.

In a twist of irony, their purposes for renovating the building, that being to provide affordable housing for students who find the cost of living well beyond their financial capacities, is the exact problem that usually forces people to turn to the streets in the first place. In the eyes of some, these squatters are those that form a picture of chaos: hard drugs, syringes littering the concrete floors, hard music, and poverty.

It would be foolish to deny the fact that many homeless people do face those problems, but more often than not, the squatter is someone who can’t afford to pay for traditional housing in Oxford, and lives in the Iffley House because the reality of the housing market is a cliff that cannot be scaled.

At the end of the day, they are our neighbours, aren’t they? Not just Wadham’s neighbour, but also our neighbours too. Just like anybody else.

 

NO: The responsibility for the UK homelessness problem is at the hands of the government

Matt Roller

Oxford currently has the second-highest level of homelessness per capita in the United Kingdom, and is the country’s least affordable city to live in. As house prices within the city continue to rise, almost no new council housing is being built, and housing benefits are insufficient: the number of residents teetering on the edge of homelessness is only going to rise.

Despite this, Oxfordshire’s two largest providers of shelter for the homeless—Simon House, on Paradise Street, and Julian Housing, in Abingdon—are set to be “decommissioned” within two years. The Conservatives’ £1.5 million cuts to homelessness provision across the country have left County Councils unable to provide for their residents, demonstrating ministers who have claimed to be serious about tackling the issue of rough sleeping remain ambivalent to the hardships that their decision has caused.

Whilst it spends more than £1m on homelessness support annually, Oxford City Council is far from blameless in this area. The council introduced the ‘Public Spaces Protection Order’ (PSPO) in 2015 which criminalised rough sleeping in the city centre, recognised by opponents as an attempt to “cover up” Oxford’s problem. Indeed, the body’s emphasis often seems to be on ‘dealing with’ the issue of homelessness, rather than helping the most vulnerable members of the city’s population by actually solving the crisis.

We can clearly see the two organisations which have played the most important roles in causing this situation. Firstly, the government’s failure to maintain a reasonable level of funding for city councils has directly contributed to the problems in Oxford. In 2015, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced cuts to housing benefits, which the charity Crisis said would push “more and more people into homelessness” and even had the potential to “cost the taxpayer more than they would save.” The cuts to housing benefits may have helped the government cut back social welfare spending, but to solve the situation it has created, local councils require substantial funding. This is one of countless examples of short-termism from the Conservative government, which since re-election in 2015 has been intent on making immediate promises without considering their long-term societal effects.

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Secondly, Oxford City Council’s attitude to rough sleepers and those without permanent housing gives them a duty to alleviate the situation. The council appears embarrassed about the city’s national ranking in terms of homeless people per capita, and has suggested that it “spoils” the city centre. There has been a long-term misunderstanding of rough sleepers, with the council’s actions suggesting they believe homelessness and rough sleeping is a lifestyle choice.

The example of the benches on Cornmarket spring to mind. These have been specifically designed so that they are impossible to sleep on, with arched sides and arm-rests between each seat. The PSPO also demonstrates that the council’s primary intention is to make the city appear clean and easy-on-the-eye for tourists, rather than to improve the lot of its residents.

Currently, several Oxford-based organisations regularly act to help out the homeless population. The Companions of the Order of Malta and the Icolyn Smith Foundation provide hot food and soup kitchens, O’Hanlon House helps the homeless to claim government benefits and provides shelter, and Just Love, a Christian outreach group, meets, chats to and buys food those without housing.

But the university assists too: as shown by Wadham’s campaign to allow squatters to continue to live in Iffley Open House, and OUSU’s ‘On Your Doorstep’ campaign, students help out at both college and university level. Most colleges also contribute generously to local groups through their Charities budgets.

Individual acts of charity and the actions of small groups are helpful as short-term responses to Oxford’s homeless problem, and demonstrate the importance of treating those who sleep rough as people rather than as some kind of plague. But without widespread intervention, the crisis will not go away. Although colleges are right to intervene where possible, the problem as a whole cannot be sorted by a social group, a charity or even a college.

Whilst admiring the acts of colleges when they do intervene, we must not expect them to solve this problem. This is an issue that needs to be tackled with council funding and sufficient housing benefits to give those without permanent accommodation a shelter. For these reasons, it is the government and Oxford City Council, rather than Oxford colleges, who have an imperative to alleviate the human crisis that they themselves have caused.