In December, the Home Ofﬁce’s policy to deport rough sleepers from countries within the European Economic Area was ruled unlawful by the High Court. The news will have struck particularly close to home for those of us privileged enough to call Oxford our home.
Most reading this will be the University’s students, who overwhelmingly can align ourselves amongst the privileged of the world: we have gowns steeped in ceremony and history; we have access to some of the best libraries in the world; we have food served to us in Hall each day, often whilst wearing aforementioned gowns; and most of all, we have homes. As well as students of the institution that Oxford is famous for, we are also inhabitants of the city, and so every day we are faced with the reality of those who live with so little.
These are the people that we pass on George Street on the weekly journeys to Park End and Bridge, who in even the mildest fogs of alcohol we wilfully disregard. These are the men and women that in the cold light of day (and often it is very cold indeed), we encounter sitting outside St. Giles Church pleading for money, and we, somewhat guiltily and yet usually without hesitation, gloss over. We are rushing to a lecture, or meeting a friend for coffee, or heading to football practice – but of course if we had more time, we’d stop, and pause, and give.
But the reality is that what we are doing almost without exception is turning a blind eye, a deaf ear, and often a dispassionate heart, to the people that are as much inhabitants of the city as the rest of us, and in the biting frost of 8th week felt the chill more keenly than we can imagine.
Homelessness is a tragedy practically as old as time, and the issue is as pervasive as ever. It’s been brought to the fore most recently by the headlines announcing that the leader of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has sought police permission to use legal powers to clear Windsor of those rough sleeping there, in anticipation of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in May. Windsor is of course globally recognisable as home of Eton College, the elite independent school, and a visible parallel can therefore be drawn between that and Oxford.
Simon Dudley, leader of Windsor’s Conservative council, had made reference in tweets over the Christmas period to “an epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy in Windsor” – and this unambiguous descriptor might seem ﬁtting to the crisis that we see in Oxford. An ofﬁcial Oxford City Council count of the city’s street sleepers in the autumn of 2016 conﬁrmed the number of homeless people in Oxford to be anywhere between 33 and 47 on any given night, a shockingly high number given the city’s population is a mere 150,000.
Efforts to counter this crisis have ranged from the practical: working with charities and voluntary groups to house rough sleepers in homeless hostels throughout Oxford, to the desperate: threatening ﬁnes of £2,500 to those who put possessions (or, presumably, themselves) in shop doorways.
Yet, it is clear from the appalling death of homeless man, known only as Christopher, on the ﬂoor of a London ‘Crisis at Christmas’ shelter on Christmas Eve that the malady of homelessness stretches its cancerous consequences far beyond mere antisocial behaviour, or presenting “a beautiful town in an unfavourable light”, as declared by Simon Dudley.
Councils must work in closer contact with the public – which in Oxford consists of almost 50,000 students – to tackle the sad reality of homelessness. The sad truth is that we, as the distinctly privileged, must face up to our own prejudices in order to offer real help to those who so desperately require it.