Churchyard sleepers face legal action

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The vicar of St Giles’ Church has warned of legal action against the homeless who sleep in the churchyard at night.

In a letter addressed “the Rough Sleepers of St Giles’” Revd. Canon Dr Andrew Bunch asked the homeless to leave, or the Church, which is named in honour of St Giles (c.650- c.710), patron saint of beggars and the poor, would “seek out a court order of your eviction from the churchyard.”

Reverend Canon Bunch told Cherwell, “From time to time, people have slept in the churchyard overnight and this has caused no problems. However, issues do arise when people take up residence in the churchyard for more than a couple of days, especially when they set up camp (…) We receive reports of needles being found and sometimes the memorials in the churchyard have been displaced.

“As a consequence the level of complaints from the general public increases and people feel uneasy about using the churchyard or walking through it in the evening.

“This October, all of these considerations caused us to request that those camping in the churchyard should leave. They refused to do so and thus we started the process of seeking an eviction order.

“In the end this was not required as the churchyard is closed for burials and thus the care and maintenance of the churchyard has become the responsibility of the local Council. Once this was confirmed by our lawyers, the Council moved the rough sleepers away from the site.”

Oxford City Council was unwilling to comment on this specific case, but maintains that the Council is “committed to reducing the number of individuals sleeping rough.” On its website, the Council states that, according to the last official count in November 2014, 26 people were living on the streets in Oxford. The Council works with St Mungo’s Broadway to deliver services to those rough sleeping, and provides three homelessness hostels in Oxford with a total of 169 beds.

A formerly homeless person in Oxford, who wished to remain anonymous, told Cherwell that the homeless people camping at St Giles’ church were reluctant to use the hostels provided by councils because of the enforcement of a midnight curfew. The curfew, the source claimed, was unpopular with those sleeping in the churchyard because it meant that the homeless were not able to beg from students returning from a night out. St Giles’ churchyard was a convenient location to access students. Unfortunately those using the St Giles’ churchyard could not be contacted for comment.

When asked about Reverend Canon Bunch’s threat of legal action, Graham, a Big Issue seller on Broad Street, told Cherwell, “I can see the problem if there are children using the nursery next door, and if the homeless are being offensive. It’s hard because sometimes a few homeless people are offensive and then make the rest of us look bad (…) But I feel like more could be done to help the homeless in Oxford in general.”

In defence of St Giles’ record on homelessness, Revd. Bunch added, “St Giles’ has worked with the issue of homelessness in our city for many years. In the 1980s, St Giles’ was the location for the start of the Gatehouse, a charity for the homeless. Since that time we have hosted the work of the Salvation Army Outreach Team, a shower project, Aspire, the Big Issue sellers and, in the last couple of years, The Gatehouse. During this time we have undertaken many works in St Giles’ Parish Rooms to support the operation of these charities working with homeless people.

“Working with homeless people has been and remains an ongoing issue at St Giles’. We aim to encourage mutual respect between homeless people and other members of society and eliminate issues that can alienate anyone from our neighbourhood.”

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