Why are rough sleepers still out on the streets?

AS the coronavirus sent the UK into lockdown in March, the Government began an initiative to bring all rough sleepers in off the streets.

But in Oxford there are still people bedding down outdoors eight months into the pandemic.

Why is this?

The Oxford Mail asked the question, but the answer is a complex one, and it seems there are different circumstances for each rough sleeper still on the streets.

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What the homeless have to say

On Cornmarket Street, groups of homeless people still gather and sit outside stores and alleyways, or sit among bedding in the doorways of closed shops.

By their own admission, some of them are not rough sleepers any more: they have beds in hostels, but still come out to the streets to meet friends, ask for cash, and to get away from their current, sometimes noisy living arrangements.

One man sitting outside a closed Starbucks, called Rob, said: “The problem in the hostels is people. It is quieter here outside.”

Though the 34-year-old is currently housed in extra accommodation paid for by the city council, he was worried about what happened once the pandemic was over, and whether the same amount of rooms would be available for homeless people.

He said: “I don’t know what’s going to happen afterwards – are we going to be dumped back out on the streets?”

Another man in his 40s said he had been housed, but still came out to sit on the streets in the day to see friends.

Oxford Mail:

Makeshift bedding on Cornmarket Street

He said: “What you have got to remember is we have spent all our time together when we were sleeping rough. Now they have put us in hostels but we still come and sit, and talk to each other. I don’t want to sit in a shelter for hours every day.”

“I’m not sitting here asking for money, but if someone gives us money I am not going to say no,” he added.

Others claim they have not been able to gain access to the extra support available, and appear to have fallen through the net.

One man, who did not wish to be named, sat outside Cornmarket’s McDonalds, said he had argued with his neighbour and had been prevented from returning home by a court order.

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He claimed he did not want to give up his tenancy to present as homeless, but could not technically return to his home so had been sleeping in doorways.

“It took me a long time to work for my flat. I don’t want to give it up now,” he said.

Though many of the homeless people we spoke to have a bed for the foreseeable future, at night there are still people sleeping along the same parts of the city centre where now-sheltered homeless people gather in the day.

What the city council says

Oxford’s city council insists there is room enough indoors for everyone currently sleeping on the streets.

But the council’s most recent rough sleeper count in late September, found 23 people were sleeping rough, a similar number to those on the streets at the same time last year.

The numbers have been ‘consistently’ in the mid-20s since the beginning of May, according to the council.

This does not mean all the same people have stayed on the streets: while 22 people in the rough sleeper count had been homeless for more than six months, three were new to the streets.

The council said newer rough sleepers are often more likely to take up the offer of a bed than those who have been out for a long time.

Some long-term rough sleepers are also contending with mental health issues and drug or alcohol abuse problems, which may contribute towards them being less likely to seek help.

Mike Rowley, the city council’s cabinet member for housing the homeless said it was not possible to force rough sleepers to take up an offer of a bed if they did not want it.

Oxford Mail:

Mike Rowley

He said: “At the start of the ‘Everyone In’ initiative it was recognised by the council, government and the police that people couldn’t be forced into accommodation. There are 12 people who have rejected offers of accommodation.

“The majority of the remainder are either new rough sleepers waiting to be placed in accommodation, or people who have been evicted from or abandoned the temporary accommodation.”

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He added: “Altogether there are 103 former rough sleepers currently housed in such accommodation within the city. In addition, 98 people have been housed in this accommodation and helped to move on to settled accommodation.”

The city council currently has a total of 124 rooms for rough sleepers across Oxford’s YHA, an Oxford Brookes University’s Canterbury House, and in University College accommodation.

What the future holds

Everyone In began with the intention of preventing the spread of coronavirus among rough sleepers by giving them rooms to socially distance.

And the Government has said nearly 15,000 have been brought into temporary accommodation as a result of it.

The programme is now moving on to permanently housing some former rough sleepers, something the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government recently stumped up extra cash for.

Oxford City Council and charity Aspire received £1m of funding for this at the end of September.

But one of the charities involved in housing rough sleepers in Oxford has warned the ‘systemic problems which lead to homelessness’ have not yet been tackled.

A spokeswoman for the charity Homeless Oxfordshire, which runs the shelter O’Hanlon House, also warned the effects of the pandemic and the ensuing economic slump were far from over.

She said: “Local authorities are doing the best that they can with limited resources available but the impact that the pandemic has had on our economy will, inevitably and unfortunately, lead to more people becoming homeless.”