When Canon Bunch threatened to evict the homeless people camping in St Giles’ churchyard last year he was lambasted in the national press. What kind of a vicar, deplored the papers, could be so wantonly cruel, when St Giles was the patron saint of beggars?
The story was more complicated than would first appear. Canon Bunch told Cherwell last year that he was concerned that the homeless were sleeping in the churchyard instead of hostels, and that the Church already hosts the Gatehouse charity which provides food, shelter and support to the homeless. Bunch’s story is important to bear in mind when looking at the desperate levels of homelessness in Oxford.
Local services for the homeless have been threatened for several years. In 2010 ‘The Gap’, an organisation which gave support and advice to the homeless, shut down due to lack of funds. Countywide cuts mean that the Lucy Faithfull House will close; its residents were told to leave by January 15th, and funding for various other accommodation will cease in April next year. O’Hanlon House has been considerably restructured after staff were told their budget would be cut two years ago, only to be told this year that their budget might be further reduced, a ‘kick in the teeth’ according to fundraising officer Kaye McDougall. She fears if they are forced to cut any more, O’Hanlon will have to drop vital services like ‘Step Up,’ a campaign which helps get their clients education and employment. She stresses the importance of doing more to help in the long term, instead of just providing food and shelter.
In the wake of the last set of cuts, O’Hanlon was entirely restructured. Now clients come from all over Oxford, which puts greater pressure on their services. Before the previous cuts, a client could live for six months at O’Hanlon House, up to two years at Julian House, and a further two years at Lucy Faithful. These days, clients are allowed to stay for four weeks at O’Hanlon, and up to nine months at any other accommodation. McDougall can see the pros and cons of this new system, telling Cherwell, “For some people, this system is better; they don’t become entrenched in the hostel, unwilling to leave the community. Now we have 10-12 clients ready to move into accommodation after February 1st. Shorter stays can ensure our clients keep moving forward. But some clients have more complex needs, and in the four week limit we can’t help them.” She’s also concerned about where the clients will go once they have moved through the pathway. “There is a severe lack of affordable housing in Oxford, so we just hope this change in policy doesn’t mean that people just keep on going through the system and are never permanently rehoused,” she said.
It’s a widely-held belief that the reason Oxford’s homelessness problem is particularly severe is because its council is more generous than those in other areas. Although conmen may come to beg in Oxford because of its generous student population, the Council can only serve those with a ‘local connection’ to Oxford. This connection could be employment in the city, immediate family in the city or long-term residence. Those who cannot prove they have a local connection are provided with food and put in contact with the services in their local area. There are several deep-rooted causes of the homelessness epidemic, the most prominent being the lack of aï¬€ordable housing and the high cost of living. According to McDougall, landlords are far more likely to rent to students with maintenance grants and parental support than people who work on low wages.
In 2012 the government set out to reform the beneï¬ts system, which has forced Oxford Council to reduce the level of support available in certain areas. In the past, those in need could access crisis loans for emergencies or disasters at the discretion of the council. Now, according to the Beneï¬ts Oï¬ƒcer at O’Hanlon House, people are far more dependent on charities and food banks for these emergency situations. Likewise, community care grants were given to those who needed support to live independently, or those who had just left the care system. All this support has been axed. O’Hanlon also claims that the government has been far more stringent in implementing sanctions and suspending beneï¬t payments in recent years to those who don’t meet requirements, such as attending mandatory appointments or medical assessments. Changes to the system mean that those who wish to claim beneï¬t rely on Beneï¬t Advice Centres to help them get to grips with the intricacies of the system. Most of the centres are supported by donations and grants rather than government funding, and rely heavily on volunteers.
When talking to the homeless, formerly homeless and volunteers and staï¬€ at local services, many lines of enquiry opened up that we were unable to pursue for this issue. Speciï¬cally, cuts to mental health services seem to have been an exacerbating factor.
It’s easy for students to give money to individuals. It’s harder to give up your time to volunteer. And if local services are further cut, the money to individuals. It’s harder to give up your time to volunteer. And if local services are further cut, the need for people willing to give up their time and money will be even more pressing.