Changing the tune

Neo, a homeless man and busker living in Oxford, is on his way to becoming something of a media sensation. I recently sat down with him to talk about his budding musical career and his experiences of being homeless in the city.

“It all started at a lunch organised by the Oxford Homeless Projects,” Neo begins. Neo was invited to play the guitar and perform one of his own songs during the meal, hosted by the fledgling Muslim community venture. A video of his performance was later shared online. “After a week, there’d been 3500 views on Facebook,” Neo tells me. “Then, after the video was tweeted, a lot of news outlets started to get in touch, like ITV Meridian and the BBC.” In early February, he was featured on BBC Southern News and has also been interviewed on BBC Radio Oxford.

What makes his story more remarkable is that Neo has only been playing the guitar for a matter of months. When a friend gave him an instrument and the advice to learn some busking songs, he began to practice for a few hours a day. “After a while, I had a good rhythm,” Neo says. “I just started singing my own stuff; I didn’t learn any busking songs. I found it was really easy to sit there and make things up.” Reflections upon his life on the streets provided the lyrical inspiration for songs like ‘Missing You’ and ‘Homeless Man’.

Following the media attention, Neo has been offered free studio time to record an album and one hundred CDs to kick-start his musical career. “I’ve already got nine songs, so I just need another two,” he explains. “I’m also hoping to find someone who will help me to promote it – it’s a question of getting it advertised.”

Neo is planning to use the money which he earns from the sale of his album to enact positive change in the homeless community. He described what he views as fundamental problems in the local government’s approach to homelessness in Oxford.

“The council have people called Outreach, street services, who are supposed to help house the homeless, but what they do is come round in the morning at six or seven o’clock, wake you up and say that you have to be verified, giving their name, age and so on.” This can have a profoundly dehumanising effect, according to Neo. “How dare they approach people like that, with that attitude,” he says. “I’m a person, not just a number, so speak to me like a normal human being.”

After verification, however, a range of services do become available – a place to have a hot shower, for example, or a bed in the Night Shelter. The Night Shelter acts only as emergency accommodation and it is important, therefore, to be able to access further supported housing quickly. “From the Night Shelter you’ll go to a better hostel, Simon House or ECH,” Neo tells me, “but sometimes that can take a long time.”

A greater problem is that the Night Shelter is not an easy environment in which to stay. A number of the residents have alcohol or drug addictions and violence flares up frequently. “I’ve seen people get bottled outside,” Neo describes, “It’s a very dark place.” Theft can also be an issue: “a lot of stuff gets stolen.” For these reasons, although he recognises that “for some people, it has helped them”, Neo argues that “it’s safer to live on the streets.” He goes on to say “I have met people who have left the Night Shelter because they can’t stand it there. You couldn’t pay me to live there.”

Recent 65% cuts to local government services, on top of a 38% cut to homeless services dating from early 2014, mean that the situation is unlikely to improve soon. There is less and less government funding, while there are more and more homeless people living in Oxford.

Neo has a vision of a new response to the issues posed by homelessness in the city. Using the public interest generated through his music and money earned from his album sales, he hopes to “buy or lease a piece of land on a long term basis, with water or electricity”, a place where homeless people could stay “while they’re going through the transitional period from being homeless to being housed.” Neo goes on to describe that “the site would be supplied with tents, like a campsite and a warden or volunteers to take care of your needs. It will be an official address, to help the homeless people get bank accounts and jobs and find themselves a permanent place to live.”

Neo accepts, however, “my dream is a big dream. It’s going to cost hundreds of thousands, if not a million pounds.” He adds, nonetheless, “I believe that there are good people out there who will support me because they believe in what I’m doing.”

Through his music and his media presence, Neo hopes to change entrenched ideas about homelessness. “The story,” he says, “always begins with a reason. It’s never black or white.  People need to see the homeless for who they are and why they’re here.”

You can follow Neo’s progress on his Facebook Page: Neo – Homeless Man at