New rough sleeping centre opened last week to provide shelter and support to help rough sleepers rebuild their lives

Lib Dem investigation suggests that 545 homes in Oxford have been empty for over 6 months, an increase of 80% in the past 2 years

The ceiling of Floyds Row’s communal room is dotted with an assortment of lampshades that gently illuminate a calming, warm space for those at risk of or experiencing rough sleeping. Floyds Row opened on January 16th as a collaborative effort between St. Mungo’s (the homelessness charity), the NHS, Oxford City Council, as well as many who have previously experienced homelessness, to provide rough sleepers the shelter and support they need to rebuild their lives.

Floyds Row, just a few minutes walk south from Christ Church, differs from traditional homeless shelters in its extensive onsite assistance in addition to its 56 beds, including drug and alcohol counselling and medical support. Run by St Mungo’s, the ultimate goal of the project is geared to finding permanent housing for rough sleepers whilst addressing issues that can lead to homelessness.

“Once people are here, then it’s the opportunity for staff to talk individually about what they want long term and the options available. We hope this service, and the support St. Mungo’s will provide, will help people to begin to rebuild their lives and leave homelessness behind,” said Howard Sinclair, chief executive of St. Mungo’s.

First look inside the brilliant new homeless shelter on Floyds Row. Picture by Ed Nix

Additionally, the interior itself is unique to other shelters. Transition by Design and Jessop and Cook Architects collaborated with those in the community who have experienced rough sleeping.

“Throughout the consultation, (we) listened carefully to what people had to say; about dogs, security, separate provision for women, activities, and about sound, light and air,” said Lucy Warin, a project designer at Transition by Design. “We’ve tried our best to create a space which helps people to get back on their feet as quickly as possible.”

The need for a new centre is certainly apparent in Oxford, especially amidst cold winter nights. When overnight temperatures are forecast to go below zero, Oxford City Council activates its severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP), making extra beds available for anyone who wishes to come inside. Floyds Row is just the third of Oxford’s SWEP venues; it opened just in time. The Council activated the protocol on Friday, just the second night after Floyds Row opened, offering much needed warmth and beds to the city’s rough sleepers until temperatures abated on Monday morning.

The entrance to Floyds Row. Picture from Oxford City Council

There are 51 rough sleepers in Oxford, according to the most recent count, although rough sleeping is just one of many ways someone may be experiencing homelessness. People frequently go in and out of existing shelters, live in hostels, or use other temporary accommodation.

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon has expressed need for a “more compassionate and holistic approach” when addressing homelessness at a time when a Liberal Democrat investigation found that hundreds of homes have been empty for over six months. Figures collated from over 300 local authorities across the country from Freedom of Information requests by the Liberal Democrats reveal that 545 are currently considered to be “long-term” empty, defined as “empty for over six months”.

In 2017, Labour Councillor Mike Rowley, Board Member for Housing, stressed that “it’s crucial that any property left empty is brought back into use as soon as possible.” In March that year, 303 homes in Oxford had been empty for over six months. The Liberal Democrats claims this number has rocketed to 545 in 2019, an increase of 80%. Of those, six have been empty for over a decade and 27 have been vacant for over five years. Moran labelled the figures “outrageous,” calling on the Labour-dominated council to “step up”. Oxford City Council disputes this figure, claiming on January 6th that there were 438 empty homes in Oxford, some of which are due to major renovations, which would represent an increase of 45% since March 2017.

Rowley addressed these concerns earlier this month and argued that Oxford has made progress overall. National figures show that Oxford City Council is in the top 20% of better performing councils for bringing empty homes back into use. He also claimed that the City of Oxford has limited legal power to take over empty houses, primarily because Empty Dwelling Management Orders, one of the ways councils can take control of the management of properties, can only apply to houses that have been empty for two years and are causing a nuisance in the community. However, at least 92 homes in Oxford have currently been empty for at least that length of time.

Cllr Rowley explained how the council was bringing empty homes back into use. He said “we work with executors and owners of empty homes to bring them back into use. In 2018/19 council intervention brought 21 empty homes back into use and we’ve already brought a further 20 properties back into use since April, so we’re on target to improve on last year’s performance.

“Our preferred approach is to engage with and encourage owners and executors but we will consider enforcement action where someone is unable or unwilling to bring a home back into use.”

Rowley, amongst many others, will be hoping that Floyds Row will be a successful part of the solution on homelessness. Its multidimensional approach targets issues contributing to homeless on a local level, but is one piece of a complex puzzle when it comes to addressing the national structural issues that are a significant contributor to homelessness.