Readers will be well aware of the rough sleeping crisis in Oxford, and of the wide range of local organisations trying to help. The Porch day centre has recently acquired a new building, and Floyd’s Row, set up to house a week-long residential intervention scheme, longer term beds, and emergency accommodation, was opened last week. Church Winter shelters opened their doors for a third year running, staffed by volunteers, and the City Council (with Homeless Oxfordshire) has been providing beds in extreme weather for all who need one – so no one has to stay outside in the freezing cold.
Yet many of these projects rely on funding which is short-term and insecure. Yesterday, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Communities, Housing and Local Government, The Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, asking him to visit Oxford East and see the important work being done by these services – and their need for long term funding.
Underlying the need for these services are deeper and ongoing issues about housing in Oxford — no-one should find themselves in a situation where they are sleeping on the street. A recent planning inspectorate report acknowledged the lack of affordable and accessible housing in Oxford, which was positive; but cemented the government’s position that local areas should not be allowed to shape housing for their own needs, by preventing strict requirement for new social housing on smaller sites. This national framework is standing in the way of ensuring Oxford has affordable housing stock – building more houses will not alleviate the crisis if those in need cannot afford to live there.
The government recently announced that it was tabling a bill to unfreeze Local Housing Allowance, so that from April, it will rise in line with inflation. While this is a welcome move, this will make little difference in Oxford, where under current rates it is near impossible to find accommodation which comes within the allocated Local Housing Allowance.
Even for those without acute need, or those who do not qualify for Local Housing Allowance, housing in Oxford is far too expensive. Oxford has particularly stringent rules around rented housing, bolstered by this week’s announcements on energy efficiency and the expansion of regulations currently only applied to houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). But even with Oxford’s rules around saturation zones for HMOs, these can be difficult to enforce, and are undermined by a lack of regulation at a national level. This is compounded by the difficulty in building social and council homes – both in terms of finding suitable sites, and getting funding, and is consistently undermined by the continuing right to buy at discounted rates.
Underfunded Mental Health and addiction services exacerbate the challenges faced by many rough sleepers and people in precarious housing situations. Without the support they need, people struggling with addiction or mental health issues can become at risk of homelessness – something entirely avoidable if the support had been there when they needed it. While many people in Oxford are working incredibly hard to support the most vulnerable, they just do not have the financial support they need. Just this week, Union leaders in Oxfordshire called for action to address the mental health funding gap in Oxfordshire, and its deadly consequences. Oxford urgently needs funding to ensure people are protected from rough sleeping in the first place – through services like these, as well as a proper social security system and a regulated rental and housing sector.