By Jane Cranston, Chair of the Oxford City Conversation on Rough Sleeping

Only partnership working will eradicate rough sleeping in Oxford

No-one likes seeing people sleeping rough on the streets of Oxford – but unless we all pull together with a set of common aims, this problem won’t go away. Our new partnership is doing just that.

I have heard many people express surprise when visiting Oxford city centre – that amongst the dreaming spires, in this seat of learning and incredible privilege, they see so many people reduced to a life on the streets. The problem is very visible, and visitors and residents can feel powerless in knowing how to help.

I believe that Oxford does a lot more than most cities to tackle rough sleeping. There will be more than 200 beds available this winter, and day services which include free meals. The City Council-funded Pathway programme, delivered by St Mungo’s, Homeless Oxfordshire, Aspire and others, helps move many people on into more permanent accommodation. However, complex and chaotic needs, together with austerity and changes to the benefits system, continue to leave more people, from Oxford and elsewhere, sleeping on our streets.

There are a complex mix of reasons for rough sleeping, many of which I understand better as a result of my year as High Sheriff of Oxfordshire in 2017–18. A visit to a prison is a real eye opener and demonstrates just how much some people in our society, often through no fault of their own, really have been left behind right from an early stage in their lives.

What is more, 40% of the people sleeping rough either cannot or will not engage with the services available, because they have ‘no local connection’ and are not eligible to access services in Oxford, or because they have such entrenched problems and chaotic lives they find it hard to see a way out. And of course, rough sleeping is just the most visible aspect of the wider homelessness problem, with the cost of housing pushing many people into insecure accommodation – homeless, but hidden from view.

The City Council has secured an additional £1 million for the next two years, which will help – but the money is time-limited and by itself cannot fix the underlying problems.

That is why I agreed to chair a new partnership between local government and police, the charitable and community sector, the universities, and businesses, currently known as the City Conversation on Rough Sleeping, with the mission to ensure that nobody has to sleep rough on the streets of Oxford.

The positive story is that there are lots of effective initiatives already happening to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping: we have a very active charitable sector doing all it can to help; a concerned public with many proactive volunteers; and a City Council that provides and wins extra funding well beyond their statutory responsibilities.

However, there are some gaps and sometimes duplication of effort, which risks being a waste of resources and of goodwill. Better communication is also needed, about what the underlying problems are, who’s helping who, what’s already happening, or who’s turned down help and why. Lack of resources means that organisations are sometimes in competition for funding. We need to improve outward communication to the public, who often struggle to know how best to help people they encounter on the streets.

Our partnership has therefore created four distinct work streams, and gained agreement from a wide range of public and third sector organisations to actively collaborate on them. These are: to address the issue of why some people can’t engage with services that could help them; to provide better information about what people can do to help; to bring more funding into Oxford for services to address this issue; and to build the partnership, around a strong city charter on rough sleeping.

I see this effort as a way of building genuine momentum, with a DEC-style emergency response that can also initiate more effective giving by the public, businesses and grant-makers – as we move to longer-term sustainable solutions to the problem. On World Homelessness Day, I hope that this provides real hope that together, we can move beyond a conversation and turn the ample goodwill from all sectors into effective, lasting action.