Queen’s MCR has voted unanimously to request the removal of a fence which would prevent homeless people from taking shelter in the porch of a Queen’s student accommodation block.
A temporary structure has allegedly been erected by the College. Students resident in Aldates House have in the past made complaints about verbal threats and racial comments while entering and leaving the building. The students understand that the fence is intended to reduce the frequency of these incidents and keep students safe, and that the College plans to install a permanent structure.
The MCR’s online survey on the matter, to which 66 MCR members responded, found that 21 per cent (12 people) had experienced a negative encounter with the homeless people outside the building.
However, Queen’s MCR agreed at the meeting that the current temporary fence has significantly exacerbated the situation, causing homeless people to be pushed in front of the door.
The MCR raised ethical concerns about deliberately restricting homeless people’s access to shelter. The motion stated, “Queen’s College has a duty not only to its students, but also to all of humankind. This fence will have a negative and unfair impact on the lives of homeless persons.”
It also resolved to improve its relations with the homeless community by establishing an outreach project. This will involve making tea for the homeless in the St Aldate’s area and fundraising for the nearby homeless shelter O’Hanlon House, which has endured budget cuts of 25 per cent over the past six years.
Sonja Wiencke, an MCR member and resident of St Aldate’s House, commented, “Forcing the homeless people a couple of metres away is not going to make the area more safe; it could even give rise to hostilities. More importantly, the fence is demeaning and dehumanising towards homeless people, which is why we unanimously called for the provisional construction there to be removed and the plans to be dropped.
“It is disappointing to me that the College is insisting on such ethically unjustifiable measures while brushing away our plans for more proactive engagement with our neighbours.
“We will try to improve relations between residents of St Aldate’s and the homeless shelter across the road, no matter whether the college is supporting or impeding our efforts.”
Freya Turner, chair of OUSU’s homelessness campaign On Your Doorstep, told Cherwell, “On Your Doorstep supports the MCR in its ethical concerns over the use of defensive architecture like fencing. We agree that this is neither a compassionate nor a long-term solution to the problems faced by both the students and the homeless.
“We also support the MCR in its efforts to try to reach out to the homeless community, but would encourage them to get informed about the problem first, by meeting with those who run O’Hanlon House before deciding on how they could best be of help.”
Analysis: Harry Gosling argues to not focus on the fence; the real problem is Oxford’s housing crisis
You don’t have to spend long in Oxford in order to recognise that the city has a serious problem with homelessness. The last official count took place just under 12 months ago, when 26 people were found to be sleeping rough on the streets of Oxford. This week, Councillor Bob Price told the BBC that Oxford is the least affordable place to live in the whole of Britain.
Many will argue that punitive measures such as the one being taken by Queen’s College will only worsen the situation. The proposed fence, to be erected around the entrance to St Aldate’s House, will undermine an important source of shelter for a number of Oxford’s homeless population.
The living conditions of these poor, and in some cases desperate people, will be considerably worsened for the sake of making a very marginal difference to the lives of privileged students.
Indeed this incident, some might suggest, is indicative of a broader uncaring culture amongst both colleges and much of the student body in Oxford. With many colleges having endowment funds that run into the hundreds of millions, it seems thoughtless at best and callous at worst for colleges to use their wealth to erect physical barriers against the homeless.
It is important, however, to see the issue from the College’s point of view as well. As students, our list of demands for college action on various issues often appears endless. We want our colleges to divest from fossil fuels, to bring down accommodation rates, to produce better food – the list goes on.
It thus seems a little hypocritical to complain when colleges do on occasion put students’ welfare first. In this case, the primary concern of Queen’s College is with the safety of its students. We should respect this position and, instead of putting our effort into campaigning against the erection of this permanent fence, we should focus our efforts on working to make substantial improvements to the lives of the homeless in Oxford.
The first action we can take is in educating our peers on the real causes of homelessness in Oxford. In a survey of over 1,000 students, it was found that the most common perceived cause of homelessness was addiction.
In actual fact, most find themselves homeless as a result of relationship breakdown. The disparity between perception and reality is dangerous: addressing it should encourage greater concern with the homeless.
Instead of organising to oppose college measures intended to protect them, students should rally around making a positive, substantial difference to the lives of the homeless in Oxford. Donations to charities such as Oxford Homeless Pathways can improve lives and help to remove homelessness from the streets of Oxford.
Punitive college measures are always contentious and are rarely popular. As students, however, we should recognise that colleges have to make difficult decisions. In this case, Queen’s has the interests of its students at heart. Let’s move the focus away from colleges and instead work to get positive change for those who find themselves homeless.