Life on the streets

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” Bessie Yuill and Jeevan Ravindran speak to members of the homeless population in Oxford.

It’s hard to walk down any street in central Oxford without seeing a rough sleeper – in fact, you could say it’s impossible. As students, we’re constantly told that we should be doing something about it – but there’s always a tendency to think about the politics and not the people involved. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue, and forget that rough sleepers are just ordinary people. The only thing that separates them from us are four walls.

We decided to look beyond the faceless statistics, and speak to some individuals about the stories behind homelessness in Oxford. Everyone we talked to was open about how they had ended up sleeping on the streets. Andy, a Big Issue seller, told us that he had been homeless for the past nine years, after divorce and time in prison had stripped him of a support system.

His story is not uncommon: relationship breakdown is one of the most common causes of homelessness in the UK, and insufficient rehabilitation after prison sentences can also sabotage any kind of second chance in society. Just a two-minute walk away, we met Justin, 43, on George Street – he blamed his homelessness on a lifetime of difficulties, which began when he was just eight. Marion, who regularly busks on Cornmarket Street, described marital upheaval as well, and said he made a conscious decision to leave, rather than uprooting his young children.

The fact that his departure was voluntary, however, reportedly prevented him from receiving help or benefits, as he was classed as ‘intentionally homeless’. He came to Oxford to stay with a friend, who later also lost his home. In a time of cutbacks and austerity, it’s chillingly easy to see the way in which safety nets can fall through when people are struck by sudden disaster. One idea which is emphasised by many national homelessness charities is that we’re all “just one pay check away from homelessness”. The council was an object of scorn to those we interviewed, and it’s easy to see why.

Support in Oxford has been noticeably depleted in recent years, as a result of central government cuts – although the city council is not necessarily to blame, homelessness needs to move up the local and national agenda.

Lucy Faithfull House was closed in February 2016 and bulldozed in 2017, and Marion acknowledged the impact of this decision. “All of them are going to be gone,” he fatalistically predicted, “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

He even suggested that rough sleepers would end up pitching out in council offices – both as a practical solution and a karmic form of protest. Andy also noted that the shift from three shelters to two had left many people worse off, saying that the issue of homelessness “has no bounds. Race, colour, sex.”

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He was more optimistic, however, about the positive changes that selling the Big Issue had brought about in his life. The worst thing about homelessness, in his view, was being “dumped on the street” with no structure or support at all.

Justin also described a feeling of being trapped by circumstance, highlighting the fact that being unable to pay for a phone severely hindered any attempt to look for a job. At the end of our interview, he asked us to look at the time and date on our phones for him – a striking reminder that the barriers of money and technology meant that something as simple as the time of day was unavailable to him. He also stressed that any impairments to his speech completely ruled out sympathy from passersby, let alone potential employers, since everyone would assume substance abuse before they believed anyone was legitimately unable to talk.

Marion, on the other hand, said that the worst part of everyday life on the streets was looking out for his own possessions, in an occasionally “ruthless” atmosphere. He felt that some people had no sympathy, since they assumed all rough sleepers had sabotaged themselves by choosing a certain lifestyle – the same justification members of the council made, in his opinion.

Choosing not to help the homeless because of stereotypes around drinking or drugs is certainly an argument which you regularly hear from students, even if it does come from a place of concern. When asked, Andy and Marion both spoke highly of students who volunteered in Oxford: Marion said the majority of students were “good as gold”, while Andy also conceded that students were “mostly all right”.

Volunteers, like those working through On Your Doorstep or drop-in cafe The Gatehouse, were clearly appreciated, but not all student interactions were described as positive. When Justin was asked, he described a violent encounter – being kicked by a student repeatedly, for no reason he could explain to us. He was clearly upset about the experience.

Simeon Cope is a man who has also seen the cruelty and kindness of the streets. Vikki Cope, his wife and a well-known local poet, passed away in November at the age of 43. She had been homeless for more than 20 years, and had contracted pneumonia after a heart bypass. Her case demonstrated the inadequacy of health services for homeless people – an inadequacy which results in both the unacceptably low life expectancy of the homeless UK population.

In 2011, the NHS estimated that, among rough sleepers, the average life expectancy was 47 for men and 43 for women, a statistic which is startlingly low compared to the life expectancy of 77, among the general population.

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However, students who knew Simeon brought a silver lining to his situation. He was dealing with his grief while still homeless, struggling to find his next meal while mourning his wife. A JustGiving page was set up for donations, in the hopes of finding him somewhere to stay while he tried to regain employment in the wake of this loss.

Although the page exceeded its original goal, complications around a lack of guarantor mean that students are currently seeking to raise £2,400 to secure him a place for five months, since the housing company won’t accept a shorter term. Simeon is still regularly begging outside of St John’s.

It is not just fundraising and volunteering that enables us to help people like Andy, Marion, and Simeon: it is also important that we stay politically involved. As stated, the council shut down one shelter in 2016, and the government continues to refuse help to rough sleepers, disallowing them on meaningless criteria such as the requirement to have a “local connection” to the area, or spend 6 months sleeping rough to obtain this connection.

Until recently, the government has made little effort to improve infrastructure for homeless people. The Homelessness Reduction Act which was passed last year offers some hope for change, but has not been seen yet. As part of the Conservatives’ 2017 election manifesto, Theresa May also promised a ‘rough sleeping taskforce’ which would act to help house all rough sleepers by 2027. Those of us who care need to make ourselves heard on these issues and make sure these promises are fulfilled.

Above all, however, the problem lies in a lack of empathy. This is clear in the recent case of Conservative council leader Simon Dudley, who demanded police use legal pressure to clear Windsor of its “epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy” before the royal wedding in May: homeless people are seen as a problem to be dealt with.

The difference in lifestyle between formally dressed students on their way to a £200 ball and people who struggle to find enough to eat every day could seem impossibly vast. It could be easy to see the numbers as a faceless issue in the same way as Simon Dudley: something to be swept away to avoid feelings of guilt or shame.

Homelessness is an economic, political, and social issue, but first and foremost, it is a personal one. This simple idea can be lost amidst intellectual discussions which create distance between the larger issue and homeless people themselves. We should be listening to the stories of rough sleepers, and engaging with them as people, instead of a faceless, political issue.