Homelessness in Oxford: Standing up for the Voiceless

Richard Howlett, Labour candidate for Carfax, explains how helping the homeless at Iffley Open House motivated him to stand for the council to represent their concerns. 

I never expected to find myself standing for election to Oxford City Council. My journey to this role partly starts a year ago when I was spending two nights a week sleeping on the floor of a draughty, squatted former car showroom. This was the ‘Iffley Open House’, which for three months last winter provided a pop-up shelter for around twenty-five of Oxford’s rough sleepers. I was lucky enough not to be homeless but had got involved as a volunteer.

The project had been initiated by a group of housing activists, former homelessness professionals, and rough sleepers themselves. The group saw the ever increasing numbers of people on the streets, this building which had long been sat empty, and decided to act.

On the night of January 1st 2017, three volunteers slept in the space. By the second night, they had been joined by two rough sleepers. As the days wore on, the numbers grew to a motley crew of around 25 people setting up temporary home in the disused building. The site continued to provide basic accommodation until the end of February when following an eviction notice by the owners, Wadham College, the group moved on. During the two months the project remained in the space, many positives emerged: communal dinners were cooked; open days were held allowing local people to visit; clothes, bedding and food flooded in from concerned residents. The project provided a roof and warmth for two of the coldest months. It did an amazing job of raising the profile of the crisis facing the city and showed Oxford citizens’ desire to help.

However, there were many drawbacks to the initiative, and a fully informed debate about homelessness in our city deserves to understand these. Firstly, the group did not have the capacity or skills to provide people with the support needed to rebuild their lives. Understandably, mental health and addiction issues are highly prevalent amongst rough sleepers. We did our best in trying circumstances, but we were not trained, and were mostly holding down busy jobs or study. Secondly, due to our limited capacity and the immense pressure on the project, we were never able to build up the relations with the professional organisations working in the city. Thirdly, and most critically, whilst traditional hostels have standard safety procedures in place, we had none of this. There were occasions where residents and volunteers were put at significant risk as a result of dangerous behaviours. Of course these behaviours ultimately stem from the injustice of our society, but that analysis makes them no less harmful. In retrospect, the calculation that homeless people plus empty buildings equals a solution, feels a bit like 2+2=3.

Do I think these factors mean the project should not have happened? No. The alternative for many staying in the space was sleeping outside in bitter conditions. Moreover, the way the initiative brought together housing activists, students, concerned neighbours and rough sleepers themselves was an inspiring example of empowering, grassroots community action. In the face of swingeing cuts and an unfolding homelessness crisis, we showed our humanity could rise above the politics of austerity and individualism advanced by the Tory government.

As I now look to the residents of Carfax Ward to support my campaign to join the City Council, I take many lessons from those nights spent in the old VW showroom. The first is that we must recognise the value of the professional organisations working in our city. In the face of austerity unleashed since the Tory and Lib Dem coalition eight years ago, the Labour-run Oxford City Council has just increased its homelessness budget to support these very organisations. Whilst the Tory County Council has been cutting its budget in this area, the city authority has stepped in to fill the gap, most notably in commissioning a new hostel as well as smaller supported housing units. The second lesson is that our current system is unable to meet the needs of the group of rough sleepers most represented at Iffley Open House. Local authorities are banned by national rules from providing support to rough sleepers who are either non-UK nationals or have no officially recognised ‘local connection’. These people are given the option of returning home, but many do not wish to do so. Once again, there have been recent positive steps from Oxford Labour for this group. The council has supported a group of churches to set up the Oxford Winter Night Shelter – ten beds in one of seven churches, changing each night. Clearly ten beds are not enough for the scale of the problem we are facing, so Labour councillors are now rightly looking at how the model can be expanded. Thirdly, it encourages me to look at how we could support owners of temporarily empty properties (most often the University) to allow these to be re-purposed for social aims. Finally, the squat showed me the generosity, commitment and creativity of Oxford’s population in fighting homelessness.

If I am elected on May 3rd I hope to be an ally for grassroots initiatives, welcoming their energy and knowledge, as well as linking them up to the valuable experience within the sector around us. As a Labour councillor, I would see my job as aiming to represent all Carfax residents, but particularly the most marginalised in the ward. More than anyone, fellow citizens whom our society has allowed to fall on the hardest times need a voice in places of power. I would do my best to be one of those voices.

Richard Howlett is the Labour candidate for Carfax Ward in the city centre. You can follow his campaign here: facebook.com/richardforcarfax

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