Fran Cresswell

The man behind the guitar: Neo on the homelessness crisis

Neo, 47, is one of the most recognisable faces in Oxford. With his characteristic beard and Akubra-style hat, he can usually be found busking on Cornmarket Street. Having been involved in various campaigns, Neo has come to represent Oxford’s growing homeless community. In an interview with The Oxford Student, Neo and I discussed the various challenges rough-sleepers in Oxford face, their relationship with the students population, and what’s next for the talented musician.

Sitting on some steps in Gloucester Green Square, I began by asking Neo where he grew up: “I was born…in Oxford on New Year’s Day 1971. When I was about 9 months old I went to Ireland—my family are Irish—[and I] stayed in Ireland until I was eight, when I came back to England and I lived in Oxford until I was a teenager”. He later spent over six years travelling Europe. For the last sixteen years, “I’ve been living in England, travelling around Scotland, Wales, Northern England, just moving around really.” “I’ve always worked,” he went on, “I’ve always had a job. Some very odd jobs—anything from working at a hostel to being a bingo caller…I was a chef for nine years.”

He told me that most of the people he worked with never knew that he was “a person of the street”: “I just don’t tell them, because if you tell people that you’re homeless, all of a sudden you’re demonised, you’re not a human being to a certain degree, people look at you differently, treat you differently”. Neo explained that, for him, living on the streets is a lifestyle choice. “I never live in houses for very long,” he explained, “It effects my mental health…[it’s] very claustrophobic for me”. He continued: “I just think that some people are born to live inside, some people are born to live outside. And outside is for me”.

Neo explained that this stigma is one of the main challenges rough-sleepers face. “People think ‘Oh, there’s a homeless person, he must be a drug addict or he must have not paid his rent’…People don’t think for one minute that he might be down on his luck”. Neo told me that, in his experience, the prime cause of homelessness is relationship breakup, while “bad landlords, rent prices and stuff like that comes in second”. He told me that it is this which leads to rough-sleeping and addiction: “so you’ve lost your house, your kids, your [partner], you’ve lost your job, you’ve lost everything. So you turn to drink, and once you start drinking, you can fall into this dark pit”. He went on: “and sometimes drink can lead to drugs, depression, mental health issues—it’s a never-ending spiral…And once you fall, and if you fall far enough, it’s difficult to get back up”. Social stigma, particularly portrayed through the media, makes rehabilitation all the more difficult. Neo told me that those who end up on the street “get treated like animals”: “I have been looked at with every look of disdain you could possibly imagine. I’ve been called every name under the sun…Believe you me”.

Aside from social attitudes, Neo thinks that local government and law enforcement regularly make life more difficult for rough-sleepers. He told me that “at the moment, [the police are] coming down hard on people who are begging…which has really impacted really hard on everybody financially and made it very difficult for people to make the basic money that they need”. He told me that this was forcing rough-sleepers who would peacefully beg in one place to resort to “aggressive begging” whereby they walk around and ask for money. This means that they have to “pack up their bedding and hide it so the council don’t steal it” and it often means they miss out on food runs by charity groups. As he sees it, “if a person needs money…they’re going to get that money no matter what, because they need it. Now if they can’t beg it, then the chances are that they’re gonna commit some kind of crime to get it”. “[O]f course it does piss people off…being asked for money all the time,” he continued, “but would you rather be asked for spare change, or would you like your television robbed? The choice is yours.”

“Purpose. Homeless people need purpose… Because if you expect somebody to rehabilitate then there has to be some reason for them to rehabilitate.”

I followed this up by asking what local and central government needs to do to meaningfully help homeless people: “They need to wake up! They need to open their eyes and see what’s actually going on on the streets.” He told me that one of the fundamental problems with the response from government is that they fail to recognise rough-sleepers as individuals: “I think that until you start looking at each person as an individual, you’re never going to solve the issue of homelessness. At the moment, to the government, to the police, to the public, if you’re a homeless person then you’re put in a homeless person’s box, and that’s it.” “What we need to do”, he went on, “is to start dealing with the issue properly. You look at each person as an individual and you look after that person’s individual needs,” including ensuring that those with addictions or mental health issues get tailored help. Simply providing individuals with accommodation, Neo told me, is not effective as rough-sleepers become “institutionalised”: “if you’re out here for too long, it gets harder to adjust back into the other life again, and this is where a lot of homeless struggle.” Part of the solution to this is for the government to intervene as soon as people become homeless, giving priority to homeless youth: “That’s another thing which really angers me…I have seen young people—seventeen, sixteen—on the streets, made homeless and they’re not helped quick enough. And if they’re not helped quick enough they get in with the wrong crowd”. He recalled a seventeen-year-old girl who “was on the streets, naïve, scared, she didn’t know what to do. A month later, she’s lying on a doorway with a needle in her arm. This is due to the government’s failing. At that age she should have been a priority”.

Once housed, individuals face new challenges, including with domestic responsibilities like paying bills and being dislocated from their support networks: “there is a community [on the streets]…we do look out for each other. And I think for a lot of people, when they end up getting housed they miss that, because most of the time when you’re housed you’re housed quite far away from the city centre. A lot of people end up getting lonely, end up getting depressed. On top of the fact that they have all this responsibility, they’re stuck in a house with nothing. So most of the time they end up back on the street”. To overcome this, “People need to have what we call a ‘key worker’—somebody that will come and check on them, take them out of the house, get them into some kind of social thing so that they’re making new friends”. He continued: “Purpose. Homeless people need purpose. Especially if they have addictions. Because if you expect somebody to rehabilitate then there has to be a reason for them to rehabilitate. Without that there’s no bloody point, you might as well stay off your face.”

“If you tell people that you’re homeless, all of a sudden you’re demonised, you’re not a human being to a certain degree”

I went on to ask what it is like sleeping rough in Oxford particularly. “Oxford provides a lot of services,” he told me, “a lot of places don’t have what Oxford has”. However, “the police, the council, they treat homeless people in such a bad way, well now they do, it’s like they’re trying to reverse everything they’ve done”. We went on to discuss Oxford’s high level of inequality: “in Oxford…you have obviously the very, very rich, and then you have the homeless”. He continued: “I was brought up in Cowley which is the poor area of Oxford. When you come into Oxford [centre] and you see all the town and gown and all the money. I think that, in a place like Oxford, to have this homeless issue and to have as many homeless as we have, [it] disgusts me. It really does, when you see how much money the universities have”. I asked Neo what he thought the relationship was like between Oxford’s rough-sleepers and its student population. While there are “those students who actually really care and want to help,” in his view, “most students, a lot of students I guess, they don’t really care”. He went on: “there are a lot of students obviously that just find the whole thing a joke, that just walk past and laugh and make fun”. Neo’s comments brought to mind the notorious case of Cambridge student Ronald Coyne who, in 2017, dressed in a bow tie and tailcoat, burnt a £20 note in front of a rough-sleeper.

I decided to conclude the interview by asking Neo about his music. He told me that he writes all the songs he plays. “I guess my favourite song is the first song I wrote, and I think it’s everybody’s favourite song really…it’s a song called ‘album of my mind’.” “I’ve made a lot of women cry with that song,” he told me, “I didn’t really know how to react when I made someone cry…I had my head down and I played five songs and I looked up and there was a half-moon of people standing staring at me. I didn’t even know they were there they were that quiet, and there were about four or five women crying…[The song] used to make me a good amount of money when I first started playing it”.

Neo plans to eventually “get the hell out of” Oxford to continue to pursue his music.