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'Homeless problems will worsen as cutbacks hit'
HARD LIFE: A rough sleeper in Oxford city centre – aid agencies expect cuts to exacerbate the problem
AS Oxford’s homeless charities reel at the news of a 38 per cent cut in the money allocated to keeping people off the streets, Debbie Waite looks at work being done to give the homeless a future – work which could now be at risk
“Twenty years ago, Bonn Square in Oxford was awash with drinkers. And that could easily happen again,” says Nigel Northcott, director at the Porch Steppin’ Stone Centre in Magdalen Road, East Oxford.
Mr Northcott spoke out after Oxfordshire County Council revealed proposals to cut its £4m housing-related support budget by £1.5m.
Steppin’ Stone currently receives £50,000 a year in local authority funding.
The drop-in centre which offers food, advice, clothing and help in finding employment and accommodation to between 10 and 15 homeless people each day, then makes up the rest of the £200,000 it needs to operate each year through its own fundraising and supporters.
“If the council stop their £50,000, they would not only lose the services we provide with that money, but they would also lose the £200,000 in merit they receive through us,” added Mr Northcott.
“Without proper funding, vagrancy, crime and antisocial behaviour will increase,” he continued.
“Helping the homeless problem is not just about handing out food and clothes to homeless people – which are essential, but are quick fixes.
“This city has the most wonderful network of people helping the homeless to help themselves – helping them find their own accommodation, work, rehab if they need it.
“Around 80 per cent of the cash handed out by the public to the homeless is spent on drugs or alcohol – people need a hand up, not a hand out and it is the vital follow-on services we and others provide which are helping people out of homelessness – and which will suffer if these cuts proceed.”
Lesley Dewhurst is chief executive of Oxford Homeless Pathways, and a large chunk of the homeless housing budget – £1m in total – is spent by Pathways on running shelters O’Hanlon House and Julian Housing and on managing Oxford Homeless Medical Fund.
Ms Dewhurst warned that loss of funding could result in a closure of one of the city’s three hostels – each of which hosts up to 60 people each night.
She said: “I am very worried about 2014.
“There are currently around 150 people sleeping in Oxford’s hostels each night as well as an incalculable number sleeping on peoples sofas and in their cars and another 500 people who are unsuitably housed.
“But a 38 per cent cut in services would mean cutting services down to the very basic level, which would only perpetuate the homelessness problem.
“It is actually far more costly to have people hanging round on the streets – in terms of costs to the health service and the police, and we are likely to see an increase in the number of rough sleepers.
“We are expecting cuts of course, but such a reduced budget will simply not sustain the county’s homeless people.”
An online petition has been launched against the planned cuts at change.org by Oxford Homeless Pathways. And Ms Dewhurst is contacting politicians and other people in positions of responsibility in the coming weeks to ask for their support in opposing the cuts.
THE Gatehouse project in Woodstock Road has been offering homeless people food, warmth and company for 25 years and for the last decade has also been enabling its clients to reconnect with their families and the outside world through its drop-in computer sessions.
Group leader Chris Morgan, 55, said: “Computers are part of almost everyone’s world these days, and access to the internet, its information and connectivity are almost a civil liberty that should be enjoyed by everyone. We have four computers running on a Thursday evening and around eight-12 people will drop in over a two-hour period and use them.
“Homeless people live on the fringes and have often lost touch with family, old friends and personal records, people’s numbers and their own paperwork.
“The internet enables some of them to get back in touch. It can help them to organise their lives better.”
Yasin, (who does not want to give his surname) is 41 and uses the Gatehouse computers.
He said: “I am currently sleeping in hostels and come to the Gatehouse for a sandwich sometimes and a chat. The people here are very kind.
“Being able to use the computers is very good for me because it allows me to see what is going on in the world and make me feel part of it.
“I hope to work and have a home of my own and the computers keep my brain engaged.”
O’Hanlon House in Luther Street, offers emergency accommodation and ‘step-up’ programmes to help motivate and inspire clients to learn new skills, get fit and change their lives. Its separate, referral-only, re-settlement floor also provides support to help clients move on to new, more suitable accommodation.
Around 30 per cent of the hostel’s residents have mental health issues, 40 per cent misuse hard drugs and 30 per cent have serious alcohol issues.
Mark Hankinson, 45, an unemployed father-of-two from Oxford has been staying at O’Hanlon House to get back on his feet, but two years ago was sleeping rough in Gloucester Green.
He said: “It is not a nice feeling mid-afternoon when you think: “Where am I going to sleep tonight?’”
“But for homeless people O’Hanlon House is a big help. It is not just a matter of a bed and a meal. You have a worker who supports you.
“I have slept out two winters ago and it was -6C – that was in Gloucester Green car park.
“If you are sleeping in temperatures like that, a hot meal can save your life.”
A HELPING HAND INTO THE WORLD OF WORK
LIFE expectancy for rough sleepers is 42 – about 30 years lower than the rest of the population and ‘Vit’, 21, and from the Czech Republic has painful experience of the many dangers of life on the streets.
He said: “I have been sleeping in a tent, first in Didcot and now in Oxford, and I lit some propane to keep warm which burned my face and hands. I was taken to hospital but am recovering well.”
A regular at Oxford’s Porch Steppin’ Stone Centre, Vit spends most of his time using their computers to search for a job and now has an interview lined up in an Oxford restaurant.
He said: “The centre has made a lot of things happen for me; as well as food and dry clothes they have helped me apply for jobs online and are also helping me gain a food hygiene certificate, which will help me even more in finding work.”
Steppin’ Stone director Nigel Northcott said: “Like many homeless people, Vit wants to stand on his own two feet and at the moment we are able to help him do that.”
‘Official figures do not show the real problem’
THE official homeless figures for the county are small compared to the very real number of people sleeping rough in the county, said Lesley Dewhurst of Oxford Homeless Pathways, pictured above. The organisation’s three Oxford hostels offer a bed to around 150 homeless people each night.
Apr to Sept 2013 (half year): Nine
2012/13 Quarter 1 to Quarter 2: 21
2013/14 Quarter 1 to Quarter 2: 37
2012/13 Quarter1 to Quarter 2: 17
2013/14 Quarter 1 to Quarter 2: 18
19 rough sleepers on the streets at the November street count.
116 households in temporary accommodation on Nov 30, 2013.
July-Sept 2013 Homeless applications: 37
Accepted full homeless duty: 16
Families with children: 13
No children but pregnant: Two
Single people: One
Things you can do to help the homeless:
Donate money to the Oxford Homeless Medical Fund — the fund ensures that homeless people are supported away from the streets into hostels and then long term accommodation, work and/or training, whilst also tackling issues of alcohol or drug misuse.
Visit the website oxhop.org.uk/services/medicalfund or telephone 01865 792 126.
You can donate at justgiving.com/ohmf
You can also give your unwanted furniture to Emmaus Oxford – Emmaus Oxford has a second hand store and a shop in Oxford.
Emmaus tackles problems of homelessness by offering a home, a job and a sense of belonging.See emmausoxford.org, call 01865 763698 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Call No Second Night Out if you see someone sleeping rough in Oxford. Visit the website nsno-oxford.org, call 01865 304 611 or email email@example.com
Donate warm winter clothes, sleeping bags and blankets to O’Hanlon House. Visit oxhop.org.uk/services/ ohanlonhouse, call 01865 304 600, or email info@
Have lunch at the Crisis Skylight Cafe in George Street, a social enterprise that provides training and experience. See crisis.org.uk/pages/
crisis-oxford-cafe.html, or call 01865 263972.
Buy The Big Issue from an official vendor.