By Nicholas Little and Kelsey Smith, from Oxford Pyschologists For Social Change

Homelessness in the UK has increased by 169 per cent in the past 10 years. More alarmingly, homelessness in Oxford has increased by more than 400 per year in the past five years. In November, Oxford City Councillor Shaista Aziz argued that this represents a national and local crisis in need of 'bold and brave' solutions.

According to national charity Homeless Link, 80 per cent of homeless people in England report mental health issues. Most often, society responds to homelessness and mental health difficulties as challenges that lie within the individual. In fact, social factors can play a determining role in both of those challenges. Factors such as income distribution; educational opportunities and outcomes; unemployment, job security, and work conditions; early childhood conditions; housing; and social inclusion. For these reasons, we believe that ‘bold and brave’ solutions to both homelessness and mental health difficulties must aim for a fairer Britain for all.

We are the Oxford branch of a national network called Psychologists for Social Change. Oxford PSC hopes to draw attention to the impact of social inequality upon mental health in the UK. We asked local organisations about their vision of a “bold and brave” solution to homelessness in Oxfordshire.

A lack of affordable housing is key to the homeless problem, and this is particularly true in Oxford. Homemaker Oxford, which explores how Oxford’s empty and unused spaces could be used to tackle the homelessness problem, suggests: “our current housing system isn’t working for anyone except the wealthiest few.”

It believes the best solutions come from speaking directly with rough sleepers, adding: “We have to start with those who are most in need of a safe, good and permanent home, designing for their needs and including them in the decisions being made about their housing”.

Open House Oxford say that rough sleepers may be only the tip of the iceberg. They note that there are 3,400 households currently awaiting council housing, about half of which include children. To get by, people may sleep in cars, couch surf, or stay in crowded conditions with friends or family. Open House says: “People simply don’t understand how bad the crisis is. They do not see the conditions in which some people are forced to live. If they did, there would be public outrage.”

The way that homelessness organisations are funded may inadvertently produce short-term planning. Homeless Oxfordshire is an organisation providing accommodation for over 200 local people per night and serving 75,000 meals each year. CEO Claire Dowan says: “One way to encourage change quite quickly, and on a local level, would be to look at how homelessness services are funded. As long as we’re trying to deliver services in an environment where contracts are constantly changing on an annual basis, we can’t achieve the stability needed to affect longer-term change across the county.” Homeless Oxfordshire also highlight the need to continue campaigning nationally around welfare reform and policies that may lead to rough sleeping. This includes debates on the rollout of Universal Credit.

Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at Oxford University, argues that “a national level commitment would be by far the most effective policy.” For example, imagine a political party that includes in its next election manifesto a promise that, within 100 days of forming the next government, no one should have to sleep rough on the streets.

Professor Dorling adds, “There are plenty of empty buildings than can be turned into safe emergency hostels. If necessary, compulsory purchase could be used. One of the first laws the 2010 coalition enacted was to stop government being able to compulsory purchase buildings that had been empty for six months. They changed that limit to two years – making it much harder for councils to solve local homelessness problems. That law needs to be changed back”.

Of course, as psychologists, part of our role is to provide therapeutic support for individuals suffering from distress, including those experiencing poverty and homelessness. At the same time, Oxford PSC is working hard to broaden public discussions about mental health to include wider social factors that can both cause and alleviate distress. We already have the resources and solutions to end poverty and homelessness in Oxfordshire and the United Kingdom. The next step is to make this “bold and brave” choice.