Oxford has one of largest street counts of rough sleepers outside London, according to a recent report published by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The report showed that Oxford ranked fourth after Westminster, City of London and Peterborough, with approximately 16 people sleeping on the streets on any given night.
Whilst sleeping rough is the outward emblem of homelessness, Leslie Dewhurst, a spokesperson from Oxford Homeless Pathways estimated that in fact the number of people sleeping rough was probably a lot higher than the report predicted.
“About 30 people sleep rough in Oxford, a further 90 sleep in hostels, and perhaps 200 people live in hostels with no security of tenure. Plus there is a countless number of people sofa-surfing,” she said.
A council spokesperson commented, “Numbers have decreased since the benchmark figures in 1996. Last year saw a spike in street numbers following an increase in the numbers of Eastern European clients with no recourse to public funds.”
They attributed the city’s appeal to homeless people to its “wide range of excellent services – including four hostels, day-centres, specialist mental health and substance misuse services.”
Whilst there are emergency night shelters such as those run by Oxford Homeless Pathways – the Julian Housing Centre on the Cowley Road, or the O’Hanlon House on Luther Street, spaces are limited and many homeless people sleep rough either on the streets, in disused buildings, or in other temporary accommodation.
When asked if there was a shortage of provision for the homeless in night shelters, Dewhurst said, “Well, on the face of it – yes.
“But the problem is a lot more complicated than that. The high cost of housing explains why there is so much homelessness in Oxford. But individually people are homeless for a variety of reasons, usually to do with a breakdown of personal relationships.”
“There is a national shortage of decent housing and most housing associations have long lists of people waiting for homes.
“In addition, some homeless people have issues such as mental ill health or drug misuse that make it very difficult for them to find suitable permanent housing. For most people, homelessness is a temporary situation but for some it becomes a way of life.”
Chris and Bruno are two such rough sleepers. Chris, 26, was put into foster care after his father and uncle committed suicide. “I was ten, and I’ll tell you, it’s no easier now than it was back then. I’ve been on the streets since I was 17,” he said.
Bruno, a Lithuanian migrant who came to England nine years ago, said, “I’ve been homeless for six years. I lived in lots of cities but I come to Oxford because the people are clever.”
The duo make a living peddling copies of the Big Issue on the street.
“It’s not easy to wake up every morning and be all happy and smiley and sell the Big Issue,” Chris said.
“I’d be happy to make £15 a day,” Bruno added.
There are various initiatives in the city addressing the issue with which Oxford students are involved. Frances Avery, a second year linguist at Keble began volunteering at the Gatehouse in first year.
She is now the Volunteers Co-ordinator for Oxford Homeless Action Group (OxHAG), which works with various organisations including the Shower Project and Steppin’ Stone, as well as holding fundraising events.
“We had a Club Night last term and SOUP (Society of Oxford Ukeleley Players) busked for us. We are also starting fortnightly discussion groups surrounding the issue, have a speaker event as part of the OxHub Series coming up and are planning some action against the imminent proposed changes to housing benefits,” she said.
“Since being with HAG it’s been empowering to see how many people are keen to volunteer and make a difference to society, and I also visited the Steppin’ Stone centre recently, where I saw some of the homeless people I had served at the Gatehouse helping out at the centre themselves and clearly making an effort to improve their situation.”
Projects such as the Gatehouse, one of Oxford’s community centres, provide the homeless with “simple food, daily newspapers, a library of books, internet access and a store of clothes,” said Andrew Smith, Project Director.
“There is no charge for our services, no strings attached,” he added.
The Gatehouse is currently in the process of relocating the centre, on account of the termination of their contract with the City council.
“We’ve known for a long time they want the building back and we will be served with a notice this month, which will give us a 12 months to find a new building,” Smith said.
Religious charities have also had a major role to play in providing aid to the homeless in the city.
“The Church helps a lot. If it wasn’t for the Christian community, crime would go through the roof,” Chris commented.
However, homelessness has become a way of life for many such as Chris and Bruno who find themselves in the vicious cycle of poverty.
“I have two truck licences,” Chris explained. “I’ve registered for work. But where do I come back [to]? Where do I shower, eat, sleep?
“I’ve got no goals or ambitions. I don’t know where to start. I’d like to go to France. I’d like to stop drinking and go back to normal but right now that seems a million miles away,” he said.
Bruno, who left his family in Lithuania commented, “I was a businessman with my company. I lost my business, then a divorce with my ex-wife, I can’t pay for everything.
“One of my friends said ‘Go to England’ so I took a plane and I come here. I got friends, a family. But I’m stuck. I’m scared – If I go back [to Lithuania], I don’t know what to do. What do I say, what do I tell my daughter when she says ‘Daddy, why did you leave?'”
Pulling out a photograph of a brown puppy called Cheeky, Bruno expounded the brutal struggle of the homeless.
“Somebody nicked him. My phone – nicked. My dog – nicked. My jacket – nicked,” he said.
This photograph and an article recently published about Bruno’s heroic act of helping an assaulted woman on the streets of Oxford are his two most prized possessions. Criminality caused by homelessness not only affects the wider population of the city, but is an endemic problem for homeless people themselves.