Down and Out in Oxford: The Crisis of Homelessness
Cacophonous coughs echoing from mattress shanty towns; hands pining for offerings of food and change. Not Dickens though – this is the ever effervescent city of dreaming spires.
From travel journals to television shows, Oxford is hailed as a vibrant, beautiful city. What one cannot fail to notice though, especially as it gets colder, is the seemingly endless chain of those unfortunate enough to find themselves sleeping rough.
A picture of the entire UK should suffice to reveal the extent of the problem: in 2019/20 councils spent £1.19bn on temporary accommodation, with 87% of this money going to private landlords, letting agents or companies.
As such, more families and individuals find themselves unable to receive council support, and unable to find council housing: the result is that the increasing numbers of people in Oxford, and across the UK, have found themselves either sleeping rough or without a permanent place to live.
The scale back in welfare provision is an equally pernicious problem intrinsic to homelessness in the city, and across the UK.
The patently obvious problem is that to break the cycle of addiction and attempt to save money to enable a rough sleeper to move from the street and into a hostel, and then rented accommodation is extremely difficult.
The more nuanced issue is that council-supported schemes for house-finding and renting are legally bound to deal harshly with any issues surrounding drug and alcohol issue. The Allocation Scheme Summary published by the Oxford City Council reads that those who exhibit ‘antisocial behaviour’ or use properties for ‘immoral or illegal purposes’ will be removed from the register for a minimum of five-years.
‘The average age of death for a homeless person is 44 years old. If this does not appal you, I don’t know what will.’
With all this doom and gloom, the way forward may appear bleak. But, there are a number of things you can get involved in, or do, to try help those most vulnerable in our city.
There are a series of student organisations who provide hands-on day-to-day help for the homeless in Oxford. The Oxford Companions of the Order of Malta are always on the look-out for volunteers to assist with soup runs, buying food and preparing food for the homeless. You can sign up to their mailing list here.
Larger charities such as Homeless Oxfordshire and Emmaus Oxfordshire accept donations, and COVID-19 conditions permitting, welcome volunteers to help them out.
Dealing with the sea-change required to fix the problems with social housing is rather more difficult, but ought still to be attempted; realistically the best course of action would appear to be seeking direct contact with your MP and asking them to promote both a policy of increased funding for the building of new council housing, and for local councils to be delegated the power to actually direct the suitable building of these properties.
Though we have fallen a long way from the visions of a New Jerusalem, the problems of housing and homelessness in Oxford and the UK are not irremediable. It will require a very concerted effort, and preferably a cross-party consensus that will finally deal with these issues as humanitarian, rather than party-political.