14. That’s the number I was told by one person working within the landscape of homelessness and rough sleeping of people believed to have died so far this year whilst living rough on the streets of Oxford. It’s a shameful statistic which is likely to increase as temperatures continue to drop.

As students settle into a new term, complete with an overwhelming number of readings, tutorials, essays, formal dinners, societies, and parties, outside the walls of colleges (sometimes literally, as people seek refuge against the stone buildings) a parallel world is preparing for the most dangerous months of the year. Over 50 people constitute the baseline of rough sleepers in Oxford—a population which those with knowledge of the community note is steadily growing.

At the same time, the homeless and rough sleeping sector—a landscape of charities and statutory bodies working with and for the homeless population—is bracing itself for an increase in both those sleeping rough and among the wider homeless population. As the cost-of-living crisis bites, and the country slides again into recession, these organisations which are already working at capacity, are sounding the alarm that more help is needed, and needed quickly.

Beyond Gilded Walls: Oxford’s Rough Sleeping Population

O’Hanlon House is a brick and whitewashed building located at the end of Luther Street behind Oxford Crown Court, a stone’s throw from Christchurch, one of Oxford’s wealthiest colleges. This geographical proximity, however, is where the comparisons between the two buildings end. O’Hanlon house is a 48-bed hostel for the city’s homeless and rough-sleeping population, one of the last remaining sheltered accommodation buildings—termed congregate housing—left in Oxford city for this community.

As Bill Feeney, the interim CEO of Homelessness Oxfordshire—the charity which runs O’Hanlon House, and a member of the Oxfordshire Homeless Alliance of organisations commissioned to tackle homelessness in Oxford— notes, it’s not enough. The charity has seen a nightly increase among those sleeping rough in the city, putting greater pressure on the need for beds and accommodation to be found across the homelessness sector.

Feeney notes that the accommodation would be both the last point of call for people before they end up on the streets, and the first point of call for those who are coming out of rough sleeping. Feeney describes the role of O’Hanlon as ‘safety, shelter, and support’, providing a space for the residents of the hostel to sleep, eat three meals a day in the downstairs cafeteria, and personal case-workers for residents, some of whom have been resident in the hostel for years due to a lack of spaces elsewhere in the social care system.

Feeney, and others interviewed for this article, paints a picture of those sleeping rough in Oxford as among the most vulnerable in society, with a range of extremely complex needs even before they end up homeless. As Feeney describes:

‘The people who end up needing support […] by the time they’ve come onto the provider’s radar, their lives tend to have had a number of things happen to them which makes their support needs quite complex. You have to take the time to understand their support needs in detail, otherwise you are literally just ticking boxes, and you can’t tick boxes with a cause like homelessness.’

Interviewees noted that rough sleeping is driven by a variety of factors ‘upstream’ to the point when individuals come on the radar of charities and statutory bodies. Some of those sleeping rough may have been released from prison with little support to transition from incarceration. Narcotics and substance abuse may also fuel homelessness, something which is often then further exacerbated while homeless. European migrants with no recourse to public funds post-Brexit are increasingly ending up homeless in Oxford. And then there are those who are made unemployed, which has a knock-on effect on the ability to keep up with rent and mortgage payments. These too may very quickly end up homeless, with those interviewed noting that this latter cohort are increasingly representing a growing number of the homeless in the city.

A common point made by interviewees was that there is an increase in those identified as homeless who have multifaceted and complex needs, particularly those relating to mental health. Ellie Alway-Thomas, the Senior Service Manager for St Mungo’s, another member of the Oxfordshire Homelessness Alliance and one of the main homelessness charity commissioned by Oxford County Council to run a variety of services relating to homelessness, including the citywide homelessness outreach service OxSPOT, noted that the sector is seeing an ‘increase in those rough sleeping with higher-support needs’, something driven by a higher demand on services across Adult Social Care and a loss of money in support services. Preliminary figures from Oxfordshire County Council seen by The Oxford Blue put 70% of those identified as at risk of being homeless, or actually homeless, as having care, physical, or mental health support needs.  

Additionally, interviewees also pointed to an increase in those throughout Oxford and the wider county who are at risk of becoming homeless, particularly as the cost-of-living crisis has begun to emerge. Yvonne Pinner, the Project Manager for Oxfordshire Homeless Movement, a partnership of different homelessness charities in the county, says that wider homelessness beyond rough sleeping is harder to identify compared to those sleeping rough who are more easily observable to be counted, with rough sleeping the “tip of the iceberg” of a much wider problem:

‘Figures are not counting all those people who have to sofa surf… The people you see sleeping outside are the visible part of homelessness.’ 

Yet as this number grows, the amount of available housing in the city for those who are homeless remains low. Interviewees noted that the waiting list for social housing can range between 12 and 18 months for an individual registered with the Council, and that this list is needs dependent. In practice, this results in situations where those assessed as having less immediate need for housing must wait, sometimes for years, to be allotted accommodation, a wait that can see people transition into rough sleeping.

Meanwhile, the amount of purpose-built, single occupancy buildings—something which multiple participants noted as vital for those exiting rough sleeping—is also far below the number required to make a notable dent in homelessness figures, with concerns over the amount of new-builds classed as affordable housing also raised.

Alongside national rent increases, Oxford also has a unique factor contributing to the lack of limited housing in the city: the presence of two universities who are increasing their student populations. The result, Pinner describes, is driving an increase in private rental costs, as well as further limiting the amount of available housing stock:

‘Obviously, we do have a very specific landscape of property in Oxford and Oxfordshire, and the reason for that is because we have the university and the colleges, and I think that they themselves do realise that the colleges own a large amount of the land and property, and therefore our house prices are higher. It is the simple economics of supply and demand.’

All interviewees noted that the presence of the Universities, and land acquisition proved a hurdle in providing purpose-built social housing, but that the private rental market—albeit something closely linked to the student population—also had an impact, particularly on those in precarious living conditions, living in private accommodation dealing with an increase in rental prices.

Figures based on Office for National Statistics (ONS) data in 2021 found that Oxford was the least affordable place in the UK for private renters, and recent ONS figures put the median rent in Oxford across all housing types at £1275 per month. The median rental price in England across all types is £795, a figure which is already the highest on record.

The (Changing) Frontline: Pandemics and Policy

The response to provision of homelessness services across England is similar in its commissioning model. Services are provided by a patchwork of charities and local government agencies, with local government contracting out service provision to run services for the homeless. This itself makes such an approach to homelessness variable according to different regions. Yet the budgets that local authorities have to spend are constrained by central government, a system outlined by Pinner:

‘Central government hold the purse strings – they task each local authority to manage their own homelessness issues, but obviously provide the funding to do that… that’s where these bids come in.’

Beyond this, central government is notably absent, aside from blue-sky pledges to end rough-sleeping by 2024 (interviewees expressed frustration with this target, funding, and little information for how such a monumental task can be achieved within a slightly over one-year period). Instead, local authorities themselves, alongside charities which these authorities may contract out to, provide the mainstay of responses to homelessness and rough sleeping in a given area. These partners may include national charities such as St Mungo’s, as well as local initiatives such as the Oxford Winter Night Shelter (OWNS)—a voluntary service which provides hostels throughout a rotating Church system from January until the end of March: the coldest months of the year.

Historically, the approach to homelessness and rough sleeping throughout England, including Oxford, is a model known as “The Pathway”. Under this system, those who are homeless are required to engage at different stages with programmes designed to eventually get the individual in a position where they could manage a tenancy. The pathway is known for being unforgiving, as Russell Hemmings, the manager for OWNS notes:

‘There are steps that you need to take in order to get to a point where you can manage a house on your own and from that point, work and stability… you move up the ladder, and if you fail at any point, you are spat back out again.’

The unforgiving nature of the Pathway model was also noted by Pinner:

‘The current pathway uses a staircase model and what we mean by that is that somebody comes in on the bottom rung, no matter what their circumstances, they start at the bottom and then, if they follow the rules and “behave” themselves they can move on to the next type of accommodation. It is quite an unforgiving system. It treats people a bit like children in that it bases people’s move on opportunities on whether they can fit certain criteria. That is why the move towards a housing led model is such a massive leap forward for Oxfordshire because it moves away from this staircase model and just houses people and wraps the support around them.’ 

In 2020, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK, the pathway system was temporarily abandoned. Instead, central government launched the Everyone In policy, whereby local governments were provided with both increased resources as well as the removal of barriers within the existing Pathway model, to house as many of the rough sleeping population as possible.

The impact in Oxford on those rough sleeping was immense. The absence of students and visitors to Oxford in the city provided an opportunity to house a rough sleeping population almost overnight, as Pinner and others interviewed described the importance of the everyone in mandate and the opportunity to rapidly house those sleeping rough, including the inclusion of those with no recourse to public funds:

‘From our perspective that was such an enormous opportunity that we didn’t want to miss, because we’d already talked about a project to help people with no recourse, but obviously you’d never had the cohort in one place to know exactly how many people there were, and to be in a position where you could actually talk to people about how long they’d been here, what there situation is, why they were having to live outside.’

This, Pinner notes, helped provide a catalyst to a move to the pursuit of a Housing First model within Oxfordshire, a move which actually started pre-pandemic with the commissioning of a Feasibility Study conducted by Crisis.

Yet by April 2021, a year after it began, the ‘Everyone In‘ campaign was ended by central government. Though Oxford Council notes that all those housed under the scheme were offered help through the council and partnership organisations to find move-on accommodation resulting in successful rehousing, others interviewed noted that in-practice the rough-sleeping population began to increase again. Feeney noted the challenge of being dealt with this immediate spike in rough-sleeping and frustration with how the policy had been managed:

​​”The Everyone In approach by national government was a short-term solution with no strategy or resources behind it… there was no strategy for what happens next, there was nothing. You had people who are homeless or rough sleeping in a room for 9 months, a year—it’s very difficult for them to be evicted out of that.’

This policy, however short, did succeed in reinforcing already existing trends within a countywide approach driven by councils and partners within Oxfordshire towards a “Housing First” approach. Councillor Tim Bearder is the Liberal Democrat Executive Member for Oxfordshire County Council’s Adult Social Care provision, a department that covers rough sleeping and homelessness. He describes this initiative as the ‘Oxfordshire Way’: a trial of 50 accommodation spaces given to those identified as rough sleeping, circumnavigating the Pathway model completely. This new Housing First model, as OWNS’s Hemmings outlines:

 ‘Would say “here’s the keys to your new house, you have almost zero chance of losing this property, what do you need?”…It’s going into what would feel like the deep-end, but on closer inspection, I don’t think it is.’  

Within Oxford Council, the housing authority for the city, has recently outlined a draft strategy on housing homelessness and rough sleeping for 2023-2028 which aims to undertake a significant housing building programme including social housing; as well as agreeing to a £1.85 million grant budget to help prevent rough sleeping and single homelessness. A countywide homelessness service across the six Oxfordshire councils has also been established, including a £3.8 million ‘hosing led’ service which began in April this year.

And in a statement for this article, Councillor Linda Smith, Oxford Council’s Cabinet Member for Housing noted that since the end of the Everyone In policy, the local council has looked to increase the number of accommodation for a Housing First response to homelessness: ‘government funding has allowed us to deliver 33 more settled homes and we’re in the process of acquiring 47 more. But wider efforts are needed.’ 

Additionally, interviewees also noted that the County Council were trialling a new commissioning model to homelessness. Instead of the council offering tenders to charities within the sector, essentially pitting organisations within the same Pathway against each other to win these tenders, the Council, since April this year, has adopted a commissioning model called the Oxfordshire Homelessness Alliance, consisting of six main service providers: A2Dominion, Aspire, Connection Support, Elmore Community Services, Homeless Oxfordshire and St Mungo’s.

Interviewees noted that a shared tender was awarded for complex issues and weekly meetings were being held across the movement to strengthen relationships. A shared tender between St Mungo’s and A2Dominion, for example, is expected to result in 40 properties for the Housing First initiative to be managed between the two; as well as working with Oxfordshire Homeless Movement’s Lived Experience Advisory Forum (LEAF).

And lastly, interviewees also noted that the Homelessness sector in the County and City were also moving towards a personalisation of homelessness services to deal with increased complex needs and higher demand. St Mungo’s for example, as Alway-Thomas notes, operates a Somewhere Safe to Stay Service which is tasked with identifying early those who have recently come on to the rough-sleeping landscape. The service accommodates 16 people who are identified as either at ‘imminent risk of rough sleeping or who have had the misfortune of having their first night on the street’, providing these with key workers with small caseloads.

O’Hanlon House too provides each resident with their own specialist key worker, to better manage the needs of the individual. As Feeney argues:

‘There needs to be a recognition that the quote-on-quote solution to an individual client isn’t always within a set timeframe, because everybody’s needs are different, and it takes time to realise the personalised support that this individual needs.’

For the time-being, the Pathway system is here to stay, albeit alongside an increasingly large role for a Housing First approach:

‘You can’t just get rid of a Pathway and go and do this now, you can’t. For a while you have to run the two systems alongside each other and that will undoubtedly cause issues and strains at various different points in the system. But it’s definitely the best approach, we’ve seen this all over the place and it’s been proven.’ (Pinner)

And providers across the Alliance agree that due to the complex nature of many clients, there will always be a need for 24/7 support, though what this looks like will perhaps be different than the current O’Hanlon model, as Feeney describes:

‘Because it is like the final destination, these are the most complex people imaginable—you can’t expect them to go from living in a place like this to managing a tenancy on their own without 24-hour support.’

No Fat Left to Trim: Austerity 2.0 and Homelessness Provision

Despite these ambitions to radically reform the approach to homelessness and rough sleeping in Oxfordshire, the messages from Whitehall and Downing Street leave some concerned about how to maintain adequate service provision at a time of increasing need, increased inflation, and the messaging from central government that ‘there is fat to be trimmed’ from their budgets.

Councillor Tim Bearder notes that over half of the council’s budget—some £220 million—is spent on social care, and that this is increasingly coming under strain as central government tightens the purse strings. Bearder calculates that, alongside cuts of £50 million from the council’s budget (which Bearder believes will be heavily shouldered by Adult Social Care), planned care reforms being trialled in Oxford will cost the department an extra £4-6 million, when they are eventually implemented (the planned implementation of this policy has now been postponed for two years). These cuts could have a strong effect on the pathways to homelessness through impacting services which may prevent homelessness further up the line.

Measures are being made to safeguard the homelessness sector against cuts to services, including the new tendering model and increased cooperation, but a move to build new social housing and to provide the necessary help to those with complex needs managing their own property will require considerable money.

Yet the overall cost of living is increasing and public services are under renewed pressure, particularly following a disastrous budget by the Conservative Party under Liz Truss, which is now thought to have cost the county some £30 billion.Councillor Smith also describes the impact of the cost of living on housing: 

‘Homelessness in England has risen by 11% in the last three months alone, and we are seeing a big influx of people onto our streets. Private rents are at a record high [that] housing benefit comes nowhere near meeting. The government must also act on its promise to end the ‘no fault’ evictions that are showing a 26% increase on pre-pandemic levels’.

The approach will also require private landlords and housing companies to sign-up to a programme which would see them housing the homeless, as well as a building campaign on already tightly desired land as both building firms and landlords look to maximise profits in a tight (and expensive) city housing market. 

Despite this, such a radical approach perhaps offers the best solution to the immediate problem of rough sleeping. Stemming the flow of homelessness, however, will require greater resources and attention to all facets of social care, both adult and children’s, which goes far beyond the purview of local government. This winter will likely see more people made homeless and sleeping rough. It will also likely see an increase in preventable deaths of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Getting Involved

This article could not have been written without the help of a number of individuals and organisations across the Homelessness Sector in Oxford. The purpose of this article was to both raise awareness of the landscape and response to rough-sleeping, and to inform the student population of what we can do to help some of our most vulnerable fellow Oxonians who we share a city with. All headings provide links to the organisation’s website.

Oxfordshire Homeless Movement:

The first port of call for those interested in understanding the landscape of service provision and how you can help. They offer clear advice on how to help be that by giving time, things or money.

St Mungo’s:

Among other services, St Mungo’s operates OxSPOT: a service which sees members of the team engage daily with the rough sleeping population. If you are aware or concerned about someone sleeping rough, please tell St Mungo’s through the StreetLink application. Even if you think that the team is aware of an individual, information provided can help outreach workers with an up-to-date landscape of those rough sleeping in the city.

Oxford Winter Night Shelter:

OWNS provides sheltered accommodation for the rough sleeping population during the coldest nights of the year. To do so, they require around 100 volunteers to man stations in Churches in the town-centre throughout the night.

They have also recently opened The Living Room in St Clements, to offer respite and a place to relax (as well as meals and showers) for those sleeping rough during the day.

Volunteering opportunities can be found on their website.

Homeless Oxfordshire

As well as operating O’Hanlon House, Homeless Oxfordshire provides a number of services for those with complex needs, including a dedicated women’s group. Through their website you can find donation information, as well as opportunities to get involved with the organisation. Homeless Oxfordshire is also partnering with the Internships and Volunteering programme at the University for skill-based positions within the organisation.