"WE should be ashamed."

That is the view of Paul Roberts, CEO of Oxfordshire charity Aspire, on Oxford's homelessness crisis.

His words carry extra punch, coming weeks after three former rough sleepers were found dead on the same day in the city.

Read also: Three homeless people found dead in Oxford

The winter months are always tougher than normal for Oxfordshire's homeless population, but this year the Covid-19 pandemic adds another dimension to the problem.

It is why Aspire has launched its No One Left Behind Christmas appeal, which aims to raise £50,000 in anticipation of a predicted surge in homelessness due to the economic fallout of coronavirus.

The charity is increasing its preventative housing response to stop tenants being evicted and bringing new, affordable homes online.

Mr Roberts said: "The statistics are clear that anyone experiencing rough sleeping is much more likely to die sooner than they should.

"What we should be investigating is preventing homelessness and building more genuinely affordable housing.

"The last thing we want is people being further disadvantaged as a result of the pandemic."

The 38-year-old has been Aspire chief since 2015 and is clearly as passionate as ever about tackling homelessness.

Oxford Mail:

Paul Roberts

Mr Roberts joined the charity two years before that, in a dramatic career switch.

The Faringdon resident was a diplomat, working in Syria and joining EU discussions in Brussels, but that does not compare to his current role.

He said: "It was a very privileged opportunity and I learned a lot, but it wasn't something that was a particular calling.

"I wanted to do something that mattered to me.

"It's a demanding role, but I get a lot of satisfaction."

Read also: Oxford man shares struggle with homelessness

He has overseen the latest chapter in Aspire's growth from its creation in 2001 to an award-winning employment charity and social enterprise.

In the last seven years alone, the number of employees has shot up from 12 to 56 and turnover has increased from £365,000 to £1.75m.

More than 2,400 people benefitted from Aspire projects last year and Mr Roberts hailed the hard work of his team.

He said: "There's an urgency and agency to how we operate – we don't just accept things will be the way they are.

"It's that hands-on, can-do attitude that keeps us going.

"There's a strong culture and a commitment to improve."

That attitude has been even more vital in a year when the pandemic has changed the way everyone operates.

Oxford Mail:

Aspire staff in January

Many services are now delivered remotely, with the charity setting up temporary wifi and loaning out devices for clients so they can take part in courses over Zoom.

The charity's CEO added: "We've had to shift a lot of non-urgent provision online.

"Face-to-face frontline work has to continue and my colleagues really have stepped up."

But Mr Roberts also revealed the pandemic has presented an opportunity.

At the start of the first lockdown, the government launched the 'Everyone In' initiative and placed about 15,000 rough sleepers into emergency accommodation.

Part of this is the Next Steps Accommodation Programme to prevent people returning to the streets, with Oxfordshire's councils recently awarded nearly £2.5m.

Read also: Councils get nearly £2.5m to house rough sleepers

This follows the 'Housing First' model, where people are put in accommodation as the first port of call.

Mr Roberts said: "We've been at the forefront of trying to normalise Housing First in Oxfordshire.

"We started two years ago in south Oxfordshire with Soha Housing in a pilot project.

"We were the first to go into the districts to work with housing associations.

"There are people struggling in those towns and they'll come into Oxford."

Aspire is also increasing its youth programmes, with that age group more likely to work in hospitality and retail – two industries hit hard by the pandemic.

The organisation is hosting four seconded employment and progression coaches from Oxfordshire Youth, to support young people experiencing homelessness.

Read also: Aspire helps revamp buildings for homeless

Aspire also joined forces with Bouygues Energies & Services to refurbish two empty houses in Becket Street, Oxford, to provide Covid-secure accommodation – one women-only and the other a winter shelter.

Mr Roberts is proud that the charity offers 'provision as well as relief', but knows there is still a long way to go.

He said: "We're trying to demonstrate that as a county we need an effective strategy to tackle homelessness.

"It's not going away by itself."