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Helping the homeless

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While COVID-19 has left much of the world reeling from its effects, the pandemic has been particularly distressing for the most vulnerable members of society: the homeless, rough sleepers, and those in poverty. With local support services stripped back due to reduced staff and a lack of safe accommodation due to governmental measures of self-isolation, the homeless population remains at a higher risk for infection.

In response to these higher risks, local communities within Oxford have mobilized to provide security to vulnerable groups. Most recently, on Saturday the 4th of April, Pembroke College began providing three meals a day to three temporary homeless shelters as part of a scheme coordinated by the Oxford City Council. The College’s Executive Chef Kevin Dudley was undeterred by the challenge of reduced kitchen staffing in executing the scheme, and commented, “I’ve always said that while we have one student in College who needs our support the kitchens here will not shut. We continue to look after those who have had to stay in residence, and when I heard about this need in the wider community it seemed obvious that we could provide the solution. My team, who are working long shifts with small numbers on duty at a time, have been fantastic in stepping up.”

As part of the scheme, volunteer drivers will deliver two hot meals and a cold breakfast over a two-week trial period, with a possible extension if found successful. The College confirmed that all staff will adhere to social distancing policies, with drivers going equipped with gloves and washing their hands during pick-up intervals. Additionally, the College maintained that staff and students will not be put at any serious risk by the operations. It is estimated that the scheme could potentially provide thousands of meals at the College price in the coming weeks. Dame Lynne Brindley, Master of Pembroke, commented, “Everyone in College is immensely proud of our catering team who are once again putting in extra effort to show the meaning of being a caring community.”

The initiative followed the City Council’s attempt to meet the urgent need to secure accommodation for the city’s homeless population. On the 25th of March, the City Council announced its intention to provide hotel rooms that would support up to 100 people who are homeless or reside in overcrowded communal spaces. This was to be financed by the £32,250 secured by the City Council from the government’s emergency nationwide fund, intended for aiding Britain’s vulnerable homeless population.

Partnering with Oxford colleges and commercial hotels, the City Council has secured 121 hotel and student accommodation rooms, in addition to providing essentials to ensure that inhabitants can practise social distancing in a safe environment. Twelve rooms have been provided by the Saïd Business School, outside the city centre, to house those vulnerable to higher risks of infection. Additionally, University College is expected to provide six rooms for those displaying symptoms of coronavirus, who will be supplied with personal protective equipment (PPE). 

“We at Oxford Saïd are glad to offer support to our wider community at this time of crisis”, said Peter Tufano, the Peter Moores Dean at the Saïd Business School. “Once the emergency is over, we look forward to opening our doors to our students and colleagues once again and returning the building to its original use.”

Additionally, the City Council and the Oxford Hub have launched the joint campaign, “Oxford Together”, a community-led response to COVID-19. Working with a range of local organisations and food banks, the campaign intends to provide practical support to vulnerable groups and those in self-isolation, including food distribution across Oxford, and providing communal support with daily phone check-ins for those in self-isolation. Five local response hubs have been established to cover the northern, southern, western, eastern, and central regions of the city. The initiative has witnessed over 4000 volunteers signing up to be Street Champions and Phone Champions to help with the campaign. 

Supporting this, the Oxford Homeless Movement has created an Amazon wishlist of essential items during self-isolation that the public may donate to, including kettles, toiletries, socks, and underwear. 

However, the City Council emphasises that the accommodation provided is only sufficient for immediate needs. Homelessness could “occur from other directions” as the government’s three-month ban on evictions does not protect lodgers and prisoners on early release schemes, which could add to the strain on resources.

Another initiative by the wider community in response to the pandemic is Oxfordshire All In, which has collaborated with a range of organisations, including Turl Street Homeless Action volunteers, to alleviate the risks posed to the city’s homeless population.  Their strategy involves virtually mapping the existing support centres across the county, to centralize community support group responses and ensure that important information is cohesively distributed when necessary. This includes an Oxford Food Access Database, which is constantly updated with foodbanks across Oxfordshire with the aim of providing coverage to the entire county. 

While the city’s rough sleepers and the homeless remain at risk, the community continues to push for greater security for these vulnerable groups.