A WOMAN who slept outside Oxford Station admits she ‘probably wouldn’t be here now’ without a charity’s vital support.

The 38-year-old, who wishes to be known as Penny, spent two weeks outside the railway station in June when she became homeless after being unable to afford her rent.

Penny was living ‘hour-to-hour’ and became suicidal, but was referred to Homeless Oxfordshire and began using O’Hanlon House, the organisation’s 56-bed hostel on Luther Street.

She was given access to a range of services, was soon allocated a room and has recently moved into a social housing flat.

Penny said: "It's like somebody giving you life again.

"There's a reason why people don't survive long on the street, but these services give people a chance to live.

"I was quite suicidal and if it wasn't for these services I probably wouldn't be here now.

"When you're on the street, you're living hour to hour.”

Penny had worked all her life, but used all her savings on a divorce and her mental health deteriorated.

This forced her to work reduced hours in her retail job and she was eventually given two weeks to leave the room she was lodging after falling behind on payments.

Sleeping outside the station was ‘almost impossible’, but the future looked brighter when she stepped through the doors of O’Hanlon House.

She said: “I couldn't believe I could have an actual meal.

"I had been depending on people giving me sandwiches.”

Like all Homeless Oxfordshire clients, Penny was allocated a support worker to provide specialist advice, while the charity helped her claim the appropriate benefits.

She started out using the charity’s day service, but moved onto the Sit Up service, where people sleep on roll mats or arm chairs in the hostel’s communal areas overnight.

This was recently increased from 10 to 20 people, thanks to funding secured by Oxford City Council as a part of the government’s new Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI).

Penny is now looking forward to spending Christmas in a place she can call home and wants to return to work in April.

She said: ”I’m looking forward to going back to work - I feel like I'm alive again.

"Life feels really good now.”

The city council's rough sleeper count in November found 45 people sleeping on the streets, but this month it revealed the true number to be 94, higher than last year's estimate of 89.

Penny’s story is familiar according to council figures, which found the proportion of female rough sleepers rose from a sixth to a quarter this year.

The council stresses these counts are only a 'snapshot' of homelessness in the city.

A quarter of rough sleepers recorded had no Oxfordshire connection, including Brian, 60, who spent several months outside Oxford Crown Court.

The Welshman, who has a type of schizophrenia and needs support for his drinking and cannabis abuse, says the city's homelessness services have been a lifeline since he arrived in Oxford earlier this year.

He has found Christmas difficult ever since his son was murdered in 2003, while his sister, who celebrated her birthday on December 23, committed suicide.

Brian’s lack of local connection meant he could only access Homeless Oxfordshire’s day services, which he has used for the past three months.

He has received guidance from his support worker, The Gatehouse drop-in cafe in St Giles and is talking to charity Turning Point over his drinking.

He said: "I was on a downward spiral, getting depressed and suicidal, not taking my medication regularly.

"Since I've been in Oxford I speak to the GP next door, I'm back on my medication daily.

"From day one, they've helped me tremendously.

"If it wasn't for their support, I don't know if I'd be here today."

On the Friday before Christmas, Brian moved into a shared house, while he has an appointment with mental health charity MIND in the new year.

The council’s street count found the majority of rough sleepers in Oxford are white male UK nationals aged between 36 and 49 and are sleeping in the city centre.

In that bracket is Nick, 47, who was evicted from his house for issues including rent arrears and, like Penny and Brian, was facing his first Christmas homeless.

He spent a few nights sleeping near the Covered Market during the cold snap in March.

Nick was given accommodation through the city council’s Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP), where local homelessness agencies provide extra beds to rough sleepers during severe winter weather.

He used Sit Up for eight months but was given a bed at the hostel earlier this month.

Nick said: "I feared it would go on and on forever, because after eight months that's what you're thinking.

"Those fears have been eliminated now I've got a bed and a room.”

Sit Up was also invaluable for Rebecca, 38, who came to Oxford seven years ago after fleeing domestic violence.

She has been homeless for several years and was previously living in a tent opposite Oxford Ice Rink.

She said: “Sit Up is warm, it’s somewhere to come every night.

“I feel safer in here than I do on the streets.”

Oxford City Council has opened a new multi-agency hub in the city centre thanks to temporary funding from the RSI.

This includes 41 new RSI beds this winter, women-only accommodation and provision for people with no local connection to Oxford or who no longer can claim benefits or housing.

The local authority is also working with neighbouring districts on the Oxfordshire Trailblazer project, which aims to prevent homelessness for people leaving hospital, care or prison.

To donate to Homeless Oxfordshire’s Christmas appeal, visit homelessoxfordshire.uk/christmas.

In a campaign backed by the Oxford Mail, Oxfordshire Community Foundation will match any donation to Oxford Poverty Action Trust through its Christmas Match Fund until Sunday, January 6.