Image description: the letters TSHA against a white background with the words Turl Street Homeless Action by the side
The Oxford Student spoke to Bethan Adams, the president of Turl Street Homeless Action, about the organisation’s work in helping the rough sleeper population around Oxford.
What is Turl Street Homeless Action, and why is it important?
Turl Street Homeless Action is a student-led, secular outreach organisation. We run evening shifts handing out snacks and hot drinks to people sleeping rough in Oxford city centre and Cowley, and offering our company! We are open to any volunteers from Oxford University, getting involved is very low commitment and you will meet amazing people!
Why I think TSHA is important:
- A hot drink and a chat does more than you assume! Not everyone would like our help and that is completely okay, but most people that we meet on shifts are really appreciative. We know that we are not solving any of the longer term or underlying causes of homelessness but our work will at least make someone a little warmer for the night and bring a smile to their face.
- Thanks to generous JCR donations, we have been able to purchase additional items to offer on our shifts, such as socks, handwarmers and masks
- We hope to slowly break down the barriers between the student community and Oxford’s homeless community, and hope that going on shifts may inspire people to take action or get involved in further volunteering
- We are one part of a large network of homeless organisations in Oxfordshire. Our main purpose is providing food, drink and company, but we also aim to connect people sleeping rough with where they can go for further support if they would like it. When the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) is activated, when it is particularly cold and anyone is able to get accommodation, we try to make sure that as many people are aware of this as possible, so that they have the option to go indoors if they would like.
What inspired you to get involved?
I like the fact that you can see the direct impact you are having, even if that impact might feel small!
What is a typical shift like?
Shift leaders (more experienced volunteers!) pick up the bags from the previous shift leader during the day. The bags contain flasks, cups, hot drinks, soup, crisps and chocolate, any extra items and sanitising equipment. In the evening the shift leader then sanitises all the equipment and fills the flasks with boiling water ready for the shift. Then around 7pm, the volunteer team (shift leader + 2 other volunteers) meets in an outdoor location- in the city centre or Cowley depending on where they are doing the shift- ready to start. They follow a route (we have a list of main places to cover), offering any items they have in the bags and having a friendly conversation with anyone who is sleeping rough, for example asking their name, how their day was and if they would like anything!
directly engaging with people who are sleeping rough makes you really think about your own privileges and how you may be able to get involved in charity initiatives in other ways.
How has your group responded to the pandemic?
Before the pandemic we were based in 2 college kitchens, which is where we stored all the bags and where all the volunteers would meet before a shift to prepare flasks and sandwiches. However given Covid-19 restrictions, now the bags are passed between individuals who store the bags in their accommodation for the night, and prepare flasks in their own kitchen (we have stopped providing sandwiches unfortunately as it is too difficult to keep food cold whilst passing the bags on!). Volunteers only ever meet outside, and must be wearing a mask whilst on shift. We make sure that all equipment is sanitised before being passed on to the next shift leader, and volunteers sanitise their hands often whilst on shift.
The pandemic and all the changes it has involved has also led us to improve our volunteer documents in order to make everything run as smoothly as possible. It is still just as easy to get involved but we have introduced a training quiz to make sure that volunteers know what to do in more difficult scenarios. I feel this is a really positive sign, it has allowed us to increase our impact and means I am confident TSHA will continue to grow in the long term!
What is the most rewarding part of being involved with TSHA?
It is hard to name one! Joining shifts allows you to meet 2 other likeminded people, and it is great to meet people from other colleges, especially during the pandemic when volunteering is one of the only things that allows you to see other people! I also think it is a very unique volunteering experience- directly engaging with people who are sleeping rough makes you really think about your own privileges and how you may be able to get involved in charity initiatives in other ways.
Locally I do think Oxford University has more of a responsibility to be involved with homelessness initiatives
Do you find anything frustrating about how the government, local council or otherwise deals with the issue of homelessness?
There are so many organisations across Oxfordshire tackling various elements of homelessness- food or clothing provision, housing, mental health or employment advice. It would be easy for these to become disconnected but from my experience Oxfordshire Homeless Movement does an amazing job at connecting these up. In addition, the provision during the pandemic has seemed very positive (as far as I can tell, but of course I don’t know about the individual experiences of people receiving these services)- there is now a walk-in service in Oxford where anyone can go to discuss their housing opportunities, and when the council activates the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP), everyone should be offered a Covid-safe room to stay whilst the weather is particularly bad. Through talking to people on shifts it appears that some people do not trust the services available, perhaps due to a negative experience, so as TSHA we are there to try and keep them warm and offer some food if they would like it, regardless of the reasons they are sleeping rough.
Locally I do think Oxford University has more of a responsibility to be involved with homelessness initiatives, something we have started to see during the pandemic, with a few college kitchens helping out with meal provision for example for Oxford Mutual Aid.
However, ultimately, the aim is for people not to be faced with homelessness in the first place, so there needs to be national policies which not only ensure that everyone is provided with a suitable home if they would like one, but better tackles underlying causes of homelessness such as cuts to welfare services (you can read a lot about underlying causes of homelessness on the Oxfordshire Homeless Movement website). The ‘Everyone In’ scheme implemented during the first UK lockdown, which accommodated everyone sleeping rough in hotel rooms or other accommodation, proves that the government can act quickly. It is important to not let these initiatives fade with the pandemic. A friend from TSHA and the Coalition Against Homelessness has created this petition to reinstate the ‘Everyone In’ scheme and make rough sleepers a vaccine priority group, which we are really hoping will get a lot of support.
Do you find that the homelessness crisis has become more acute because of the COVID-19 situation?
In terms of rough sleeping in Oxford, we have found that the number of people we see on shifts has generally decreased since before the pandemic. However, this does not mean that the issues of homelessness have improved, as being homeless also includes things like sofa surfing, living in temporary accommodation, shelters, or accommodation that does not meet the needs of the individual. I would say these problems are generally less visible to the student community, but are likely to have worsened during the pandemic as more are experiencing economic uncertainty.
What is the best way that students can get involved?
You can join our Facebook group; sign up to our mailing list or email [email protected]. We are always looking for new volunteers to help on shifts, and if you are not in Oxford at the moment then we still try to raise awareness of other ways you can be involved from home. We will be electing a new committee at the end of Hilary term so now is a great time to get involved!
Image credit: Bethan Adams