Today in court Oxford University were granted an interim possession order to repossess the Old Mill at Osney, which has been inhabited by Osney Open House (formerly Iffley Open House) residents for the past ten days. The residents have been permitted 5 days, an extension of the usual allowance of 24 hours, to move their possessions out of the building. The Old Mill, which has been left unoccupied for seven years, has provided shelter for 21 homeless people since Sunday.
The group, which was previously evicted from the VW garage on Iffley road, has been described as “a godsend” by homeless residents, as inhabited by “good tenants”, by Wadham college, and as providing “good neighbours”, by the residents of nearby Percy street. Bill David, a local resident, said that “calling it a godsend misses the point. It’s a home, for goodness sake, a place to live. It’s a basic right.” Miriam Stewart, Oxford student and volunteer at Iffley Open House, described the court’s actions as “the unnecessary criminalisation of 21 already vulnerable individuals.” She said: “What’s become increasingly apparent to me during this process is the disjoint between the university’s understanding of what is happening in the city of Oxford with housing and homelessness and the reality of its gravity.”
A representative from the Osney Open House group read a statement arguing that “deferring the IPO [interim possession order] would prevent the unnecessary and involuntary criminalisation of 21 people, many of whom are beginning to find their feet again following periods of extreme instability. These 21 individuals have evidently already experienced circumstances of great difficulty and complexity. We hope that you agree it would be hugely detrimental to the interests of these individuals and indeed the local Oxford community for them to be made homeless tomorrow, when time could be given for the making of alternate plans that might enable a more hopeful future for our residents.”
Oxford University said, “Our request for an interim possession order for Osney Power Station was granted by the court this morning. We requested the court to extend the time for serving the order so that the occupiers are given a few days to pack up their belongings without compromising our right to reclaim the property. The court agreed that this was “appropriate and proportionate” and extended the order until Sunday (12th March). We have been given to understand that the occupiers will be vacating over the weekend. Homelessness is a serious issue in Oxford, and we will continue to work with local stakeholders on this matter. Osney Open House have made a serious point by drawing attention to this issue, and we hope to continue working with them. In particular, we would like to see how we can work with and support local homeless charities in the future.”
The move to the Old Mill followed Wadham’s eviction in order to start their pre-demolition work for building 135 student flats. Miranda Shaw, a local resident, says “It’s ridiculous that people are still on the streets in one of the richest cities in the world with so many empty buildings. The university owns so much of the city centre. We are facing a social emergency and this is now the second time that Oxford University has closed its doors. We hope that this will change in the future.”
“Oxford Uni, do your duty”: students and locals protest Oxford University’s interim possession order
While Wadham College sought a possession order to reclaim their Iffley Road building, Oxford University has been granted an interim possession order. Usually this would require residents to vacate within 24 hours – any presence in the building after this time would be counted as criminal activity. While opportunities for rehousing have been discussed with Isobel Hughes, Director of Operations at the University of Oxford Estate, no arrangements have been made for the immediate situation on the basis that no properties of appropriate residential standards are available. Oxford University Student Union and Oxford University Labour Club have passed motions unanimously in support of the Open House group. OUSU On Your Doorsteps Campaign suggests that abandoned university-owned buildings such as Wahoo might have been used to house the homeless during winter months.
Previous discussions between the Oxford Student and Osney Open House residents has shown residents to be using the address of the building to apply for jobs, open bank accounts, and apply to rent flats or rooms. Neil, one of the residents of the group, told the Oxford Student: “We had people in the open house working. They need the stability, and they need time to save money. At the house, we were supplying food, heating, clothing – and this allowed them to save money for deposits. They need time to work, to save, to get their lives together.“