Source: Flickr

Homeless Oxfordshire last week received a £100,000 grant from the UK Government, which will fund emergency accommodation for rough sleepers in the city amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The new funding from the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government comes as UK homeless charities urge the Government to continue supporting local councils in housing rough sleepers and pass legislation to prevent homeless people from having to return to the streets.

As the UK entered lockdown in March, the Government ordered councils to provide emergency housing for rough sleepers, as well as those staying in hostels and night shelters. However, councils and homeless organisations alike have expressed concerns about sustaining funding for emergency accommodation and other services into the summer.

Claire Dowan, the CEO of Homeless Oxfordshire, told The Oxford Blue, “While the £100,000 has been a huge help to us, we are continuing to work hard to recover income that we lost between March and July. It is difficult to predict what the full financial cost of COVID will be as we continue to adapt our services and respond to changing operational needs as a result of the pandemic.”

Dowan added, “As we head into the latter part of 2020, our focus will now turn to generating interest in our September raffle that has a top prize of £2000 and then our Christmas campaign thereafter. We are also working with local businesses to provide a knowledge exchange that will allow us to tackle the ‘wicked problem’ of homelessness together.”

Homeless Oxfordshire is the largest provider of temporary and supported accommodation for homeless people in the county, offering shelter for up to 24 months alongside access to vital professional support which is essential to helping people get back on their feet, recover from illness and find jobs.

The organisation has lost significant income since March because of a lack of fundraising as well as £15,000 of spending on personal protective equipment (PPE) and targeting resources at keeping homeless people safe from coronavirus. The funding comes from the Government’s COVID-19 Homelessness Response Fund, and is distributed by Homeless Link.

In Oxford City Council’s November 2019 street count, there were 43 rough sleepers in the city, of which 27 had been sleeping rough for over 6 months. This fell sharply to 25 in the Council’s latest count, before the lockdown. However, the figure was just as low in summer 2015, at 22.

Earlier this year, Oxford City Council announced plans to invest £7.4 million in tackling homelessness in the city in 2020-21. In recent weeks, it has spent around £600,000 finding accommodation for rough sleepers, who are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus because of underlying health conditions and a lack of hygienic washing facilities.

In March, the UK Government put aside £3.2 million to support rough sleepers by providing safe quarantine accommodation – such as hotels – as the UK entered lockdown. In Oxford, the City Council worked with hotels and university colleges to accommodate homeless people and rough sleepers, securing access to 121 rooms across the city.

In April, Pembroke College began working with the City Council to provide hot food for around 120 people, serving over 15,000 meals by the end of May. Pembroke, University College and the Saïd Business School also entered into partnerships with the Council to provide rooms for rough sleepers.

At the end of June, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick pledged a further funding package of £105 million for local councils housing rough sleepers and supporting those on the brink of homelessness as part of the ‘Everybody In’ programme.

However, Claire Dowan told The Oxford Blue that the Government should “make it clear” to Oxford City Council how much extra funding local homeless services can expect to receive from the package. “This will help councils and frontline services such as Homeless Oxfordshire plan for the immediate future and beyond”, Dowan explained.

Meanwhile, charities have been lobbying the Government to take more meaningful action on homelessness and rough sleeping in the UK. Last week, 40 organisations – including Crisis and Shelter – joined forces to propose legislation that would mandate local councils to continue providing emergency accommodation to those with nowhere safe to say, accusing Boris Johnson of “piecemeal” help for the homeless.

Shelter has also demanded better protections for private renters, having found that 230,000 are now at risk of eviction.

A city councillor has been contacted for comment.

Oliver Shaw

Oliver (he/him) is one of the Editors-in-Chief of The Oxford Blue for the winter vacation and Hilary 2021. Oliver is from Warwickshire and is in his final year studying History at Merton College.