Oxford has one of the highest per capita levels of homelessness of any city in the country. There is both intense misconception about the causes and scale of the problem, and confusion as to how to attempt reduce it.
While most people have moved away from the view that the homeless are homeless entirely due to personal fault or weakness, the issue remains a deeply misunderstood one. This is just as true with respect to the perceptions of Oxford students as of any others across the country. Consider, briefly, what would be the first reasons you would offer if someone asked why it is that the homeless you see have come to be so. Would you point to relationship breakdown? Or leaving prison with nowhere to go? Or perhaps being forced out of the family home?
In a survey of over 1000 University students, it was found that the most widely perceived cause of homelessness was believed to be addiction. The other possible causes respondents could choose ranged from relationship breakdown, to leaving prison, to mental health problems, or being forced out of the family home. All were highlighted by fewer people as a significant cause of homelessness. Indeed, only nine per cent gave family breakdown as a primary cause, while only two per cent selected leaving prison.
These beliefs are as dangerous as they are lacking a basis in reality. In a study of people who either are or have been homeless, run by Shelter, the single most common cause was found to be relationship breakdown, with this being given as a primary cause by 41 per cent of respondents. Meanwhile, 25% responded that being released from prison and having no other option was a primary cause behind their situation. The disparity between perceptions and reality here serves to underline why homelessness is so low on policy agendas. As the tendency to focus on addiction shows, too often we take the view that these are people who have brought around their own predicament and are failing to escape due to lack of effort.
I have seen this attitude repeatedly in my time here, as otherwise extremely caring people express the opinion that the homeless generally could, if they just tried a bit harder, pull themselves out of their situation.
Another problem is the lack of comprehension of the scale of the problem; in the survey 73 per cent of respondents thought that at least half of all homeless people were actually sleeping rough. In actual fact, for every rough sleeper you see, there will be 100 more in hostels. In 2013, over 112,000 declared themselves homeless. On top of this, the ‘hidden homeless’, consisting of a far larger group who have found temporary accommodation in insecure housing, push the demographic into the many hundreds of thousands.
The problem is clearly one that needs solving. This in itself is a complex issue, as seen in the Council’s ‘Your Kindness Could Kill’ campaign. Intended to convey how it is usually more effective to give money to charities that could better pool superior resources, some inferred from this slogan the implication that money given directly to the homeless will necessarily be used to buy alcohol and drugs.
However, despite these difficulties, there are a number of things which can be done. If you see someone sleeping rough, call ‘No Second Night Out’ on 0300 500 0914. They are a group committed to trying to ensure than no one sleeps rough more than once more after they have been altered. Alternatively, if you want to give money in some way but are worried about how it will be used, put money in the homeless medical fund collection boxes in your college receptions.
Homelessness is a far larger problem than is usually thought; it needs to be acted against, and unless it is accepted that it is not just the responsibility of the homeless person but also the rest of society to help get them out of their situation, many will end up stuck in a cycle which can so easily be avoided