When a blanket of snow descended on Oxford last week, many students were overjoyed to see the transformation of the city into a magical world of black and white. After a walk in the snow, we could enjoy the luxury of warming ourselves up with a cup of hot chocolate while admiring the dancing snow from the comfort of our rooms.
But for Oxford’s homeless people shivering under their thin blankets, snow only makes survival more difficult: it becomes too cold for them to sleep outdoors. In these wintry months, they slip further out of our notice as we walk quickly through the cold streets, too wrapped up in ourselves to give them much attention.
Homelessness is a rampant problem in Oxford. According to Oxford City Council, there are more than 6,000 households on the waiting list for temporary accommodation as of December 2011, much higher than neighbouring districts, and the South East region as a whole.
It is all too easy to overlook these people. When I decided to find out more, I realised with a pang of guilt that I had always neglected them, no matter how many times I walk past every day. Fortunately, there are many compassionate students who have been helping the homeless in an outreach group every Friday evening. I joined them last Friday, walking around the city centre to distribute sandwiches, chocolate bars and cups of hot drinks.
As we walked up St. Giles, meeting one homeless person every few hundred metres, it wasn’t long until our supplies ran out.
There, I got the chance to talk with a homeless woman, Debbie*. She was sitting at a corner, with her dog Jack on her lap. She came across as an amicable person, and she told me in frank terms how she started sleeping rough.
Debbie is originally from Oxford, and used to have a full-time job as a social service worker. The nature of her work meant that she already knew some of the homeless people in Oxford when she became homeless herself about two years ago.
At the time when she still had a job, Debbie was the mother of two children and led a life much like those of her neighbours. However, she became the victim of domestic violence, subsequently losing her job and her house.
This also led to a case for child custody against her ex-partner, who, after being convicted of gang rape and serving a prison sentence, won the case and is now taking care of the two children.
It is especially difficult for her to lead a normal life again because she suffers from mental health problems. She’s had multiple personality disorder ever since childhood, and this has made her emotionally unstable. She told me: “You’ve found me in a good mood today.” On other less cheerful days, I wouldn’t have been able to interview her.
When I asked Debbie how she thought she was being treated in general, she said that “most people are lovely”, but because of her mental health condition, she cannot be sure if people are maltreating her because sometimes she becomes “paranoid and hears things”.
She also has drinking problems, another obstacle preventing her from pulling her life back to normality.
Unfortunately, the government has done little to help her. In a video interview given more than a year ago, she said: “Social services are not working correctly. They will not even give me a 10ml script for methadone.”
I asked her if there had been any improvement, and she expressed disappointment that social services still weren’t providing her with detox medication.
She is also in need of medication for her mental health. The lack of proper medical treatment will continue to incapacitate her and confine her to a hand-to-mouth lifestyle.
The harshest time for a homeless person comes at night, when the temperature is lowest and one has to find a place to sleep. Debbie spends some nights in a children’s park and other nights at her friend’s mother’s house. The freezing weather has made it almost impossible for anyone to stay overnight outdoors. Luckily, her friend’s mother has let her sleep more often at her home.
Not all the homeless people have acquaintances who are willing to provide them with protection from the cold, but the shelters provided by the government are not helping as many as possible.
Dogs are not allowed to enter the shelters. However, Debbie emphasised that “dogs are part of the family” and that “we [homeless people] are all animal lovers”. Street violence is also a risk, so it is necessary to have a dog for safety reasons.
The dog and owner keep each other warm on cold days, but during the nights homeless people are barred entry from the shelters because the government doesn’t recognise that the homeless cannot part with their dogs. I spent a few moments alone with her dog Jack, who was big but gentle.
I watched him as he waited eagerly for her to get back, and I could feel how close the bonding was between the homeless person and the homeless dog.
The government is not doing enough, so Debbie has been contributing to getting the homeless people’s voice heard. She was interviewed by Mark Horvath, a video-maker based in LA, on his Youtube channel Invisible People.
It was not easy for her to appear on video since she usually isn’t comfortable for people to photograph her and she wanted to avoid media attention. She decided to do the interview, however, in the hope that more people would come to understand the plight of the homeless.
I asked her what we could do to help: “Assess each person as an individual.” Inevitably, the government will discuss and tackle the problem of homelessness in a sweeping manner, but this tendency to view every homeless person as essentially the same can be damaging. Perhaps the only thing in common for all homeless people is their wish to have somewhere decent to live.
My encounter with Debbie taught me that it is wrong to think that the homeless deserve to sleep rough. Very often, the homeless are victims who have a terribly difficult hard time struggling in the circumstances once they are forced to the streets.
Before we ended our conversation, she asked me about myself and my studies. I was amazed by how she still took an interest in other people, despite all that she is going through and all the passers-by that neglect her. She never stops caring for people around her.
Even before our interview, she was consoling a fellow homeless man. She has enough troubles in her own life, yet she supports others in the homeless community. She said to me: “If you were standing here upset and crying, I couldn’t just turn away. Could anyone?