Recent research carried out by the UK housing and homeless charity, Shelter, shows that the number of homeless people is rising in the UK. They define someone as homeless if they are sleeping rough and if they are living in temporary accommodations, like a shelter or hostel. As of December 2019, they found that 280,000 people are homeless in England with thousands more at risk.

As students, it is sometimes hard to find the time to think about anything besides impending deadlines. However, there are many easy ways to get involved with organisations around the city. I sat down with Turl Street Homeless Action’s president, Sarah Winski, to find out more about the work of the student-run organisation.

Turl Street Homeless Action (TSHA) was started in 2013 with the primary mission of providing hot drinks, food, and conversation for rough sleepers to combat the hunger and loneliness often felt by rough sleepers. TSHA primarily operates within the city centre and volunteers sign up for two hour shifts at 7 pm every night.

If you sign up for a shift, you can expect to spend half an hour preparing the food and the remaining time giving out the food. In a night, two groups are sent off. They collectively interact with 10 to 30 people per night. As well as their regular shifts, they also run other initiatives such as creating winter packs and supplies to hand out on colder nights.

In the most recent Oxford City Council street count in January, 25 people were found to be experiencing rough sleeping. Sarah was quick to point out that these figures do not fully represent the problem. Whilst there are around 10 people that TSHA has known for years, there are new people they see who stay for one to three weeks. The number varies from night to night, showcased by the varying number of rough sleepers they help each night, meaning that the street counts are an underestimate.

The lack of affordable housing in Oxford and weak supportive networks for rough sleepers through family or government assistance are some of the many factors that lead to the numbers seen in the city. Sarah was particularly aware of the complexity of the issues that they deal with on a daily basis and said that they are constantly asking themselves, “What is appropriate for us to do?” They interact with organisations such as the Oxford Coalition Against Homelessness and the Oxford City Council to ensure that the needs of people on the street are communicated to the organisations trying to serve them.

“Homelessness is the result of a lot of complex relationships. People need more support than just a sandwich. We are the only people with our ears so close to the ground so we can put people in touch with the relevant organisations who can help them,” she said.

Last year, a Taylors location in the Covered Market did not allow an elderly homeless couple to consume beverages they had purchased on the premises. Sarah stated that they treated it as an opportunity to strengthen the connection between businesses, rough sleepers and outreach groups in their initial emails to Taylors.

They opened a dialogue with management and after their talks finished they put the couple in touch with an advocacy group better placed to support the couple and raise awareness of discrimination against rough sleepers in Oxford. Oxford Coalition Against Homelessness has since launched a boycott of Taylors on and a petition with five demands to “help combat these kinds of incidents throughout the city.”

Turl Street Homeless Action has grown immensely over the last year. 600 new volunteers signed up at the Fresher’s Fair at the start of Michaelmas and shifts are now filling up weeks in advance. They’re also supported by monetary donations from individual JCR and MCR motions as well as leftover proceeds from balls. The main issues they face are the misunderstandings about homelessness. Sarah highlighted that people imposing their own views on homeless people is a problem and that they are aware of the risk of doing so themselves.

One of the things that they have focused on this year is working more closely with other organisations. Sarah cited their deep reach inside colleges as a benefit that allows them to bring awareness to other organisations in Oxford working on homelessness that do not get as much attention as they do.

TSHA also has been looking to increase the number of healthy food options they provide and have been working on creating a free library. One of the things they have noticed from their nightly runs is that whilst rough sleepers are often found with a book in hand, they have nowhere to keep them. Sarah noted that when she goes out with two bags of book donations, they are gone within five minutes. Through their work with the SU, City Council and churches, TSHA is at the stage of finding a location for the free library.

At the core of what they do as volunteers are the personal interactions they have every night with rough sleepers. Sarah stated, “The most important thing we do is just talk to people.”

As a volunteer, you only have to commit to one night and there is no pressure to do more. Sarah is often asked how she feels at the end of a shift. She says it can be a mix of happy and sad but that you feel like you have done something worthwhile.

Whilst Turl Street Homeless Action covers the evenings, St Giles Society for the Homeless which fills the gap in the daytime by running morning and lunchtime shifts to deliver food to rough sleepers.

I spoke to a friend at my college who did a shift with TSHA this term. She stated that the volunteering was “relaxed and easy but still made a difference. People are sleeping rough knowing that at least someone cares.”

It was a pleasure to speak to Sarah Winski and learn about the work of Turl Street Homeless Action. Sarah will step down as president at the end of this term but was very enthused about the new committee and all the volunteers involved with TSHA. It is clear to see that the work that they do makes a difference on an individual level to both the volunteers and the rough sleepers they serve, as well as improving the nature of the dialogue on homelessness around Oxford.