The Other Side of the City

Why we should not forgot the homeless of Oxford

by Dawn Hollis, 12th January 2010


What I did not expect was the sinking feeling associated with hearing, on virtually every street corner in this beautiful city, the variety of ways – pleading, hopeful, bored, tired – in which the phrase “Big Issue madam?” could be spoken.

One of my first thoughts when snow started to fall across the south of England a week before Christmas was how tremendously pretty Oxford would look in such weather, with the Bodleian frosted over and the college quads carpeted in white (and probably full of over-excited, snowball-wielding students). It wasn’t until a little while later that I thought vaguely of the Big Issue seller who I passed on my way to lectures, standing by Blackwell’s every day during term that I considered the fact that, for those without a roof over their heads, Oxford in snow is probably the first definition of downright grim.

The massive homelessness problem was one thing which I – perhaps naïvely – was not prepared to find in Oxford. Over the Christmas vacation, my first time back at home, people kept asking me “was it how you expected?” and I suppose, for the most part, it actually was. I had known there would be slightly quirky traditions, I came with some expectation of tourists (although was not, admittedly, mentally prepared for the moment when I tried to leave my college and found myself fighting my way through thirty people with cameras, à la celebrities with the paparazzi), and I was even so foolish back in my pre-Oxford days to relish the thought of the hard academic work which awaited me. What I did not expect was the sinking feeling associated with hearing, on virtually every street corner in this beautiful city, the variety of ways – pleading, hopeful, bored, tired – in which the phrase “Big Issue madam?” could be spoken.

Throughout my first term seeing people on the streets would always put my own problems into perspective. Hurrying down Broad Street in the rain and the dark, cursing the weather and with a bagload of books over my arm, I passed a man just sitting on the sodden pavement, a bent piece of cardboard placed on his head. He didn’t have a cosy library to retreat into away from the rain. However much I frequently moaned about my shoe-box sized, faintly mouldy college room, at least my only protection against the weather was not actually a shoe-box. The contrast, also, between the truly privileged lives that we lead within our ‘ivory towers’ and those of so many of the homeless people in Oxford never failed to turn my stomach: is it possible to feel any worse, walking down Cornmarket in a ball gown, telling someone asking you for money for something to eat that no, you can’t give them anything, because you’ve already paid £60.00 for a ball ticket, meaning that drinks are paid for and you did not bring any cash out with you? On Matriculation Day after leaving the Sheldonian I stopped and bought a Big Issue from a seller on Turl Street, and he told me I was his first customer for the day. How very ludicrous we must have looked to him, sidestepping past in sub-fusc and gowns, our greatest concern whether or not we would find time amidst the ‘matriculash’ ahead to do some reading for the essay due in the next day.

I don’t mean to condemn people for not doing enough; goodness knows I have employed the head-down, avoiding-eye-contact technique many a time when halfway to a lecture, or even just when halfway to lunch. It isn’t possible to always help, and when you’re a student on a budget there often isn’t such a thing as ‘spare change’ in your wallet. A little more awareness, however, would not go amiss. I would hope that most people at Oxford are neither insensitive nor foolish enough to ask “why don’t they just get a job?” (in brief, because jobs usually pay into bank accounts, and to have a bank account you need a permanent address, so no address means no job), but thinking in greater depth about the basic practicalities of living on the streets might lead to increased sympathy and thus further efforts to help.

The fact that people who, given a different set of circumstances, could be at university with us are instead begging for our spare change in the street should be one that gives many pause for thought.

There is help available: the Gatehouse, a day-shelter, provides two hours sessions sharing “simple food” (as their website puts it) and company six days a week, whilst there are a number of night shelters, often with a nominal fee – O’Hanlon House provides emergency accommodation for over-25s at a charge of £3.50 per night, including an evening meal and breakfast, whilst The Bridge on Iffley road offers shelter to 16-25 year olds. That there is a call for the latter may help to bring the issue home to students a little – the fact that people who, given a different set of circumstances, could be at university with us are instead begging for our spare change in the street should be one that gives many pause for thought. Perhaps I am still naïve, but I am a firm believer that it is more often bad luck than any individual fault which leads people to homelessness – so it ‘could be me’, and that is probably why the sight of snow led me in a roundabout way to think through it like this. Back, however, to the practicalities. The Bridge is only open from 9.00pm to 8.00am – and Oxford by 8.45pm on a winter night can be cold indeed. Moreover, whatever the sterling efforts of these shelters, their resources are still finite. In the worst-case scenario – these places being full – a homeless person needing shelter might either be forced to sleep outside (walking down St Giles’ of an evening, you might note that the graveyard walls double as sleeping quarters for some) or, if they have the money from, for example, Big Issue selling they could go to one of the hostels such as Central Backpackers. A bed there, however, costs £16.00, and with a profit of 75p earned on each Big Issue sold, that’s just under twenty-one copies, and money needs to be left over for food and to buy more Big Issues to sell the next day. Considering how many sellers there are in Oxford, that’s a lot of copies.

Students in Oxford are undeniably aware of homelessness – the fact that a certain Big Issue seller on Cornmarket has caused enough amusement with his one-liners (“Get your Big Issue, two free staples with every issue!” ) to become a key feature on the “Overheard at Oxford Uni” Facebook page pays testament to this fact. Students at Oxford have also worked incredibly hard to get here and have every right to enjoy the glittering balls and parties which accompany the intense studying. However, with this privilege – and earned or no, it is a privilege to be entitled to live and work in such a place, and with such resources open to us – there also comes, in my opinion, responsibility. As a student of the well-known “doss subject” of the university (History) I certainly do not claim this, but many who graduate from Oxford will be immensely qualified to make a difference in whatever area they choose to make a career, be it politics, law or enterprise (these not, of course, being the only possible careers for an Oxford graduate, whatever the implications of the recent “Oxford and Cambridge Careers Guide”), and perhaps then they will look back on their university days and remember, along with the socialising and interminable hours spent in the library, those among the dreaming spires far less fortunate than themselves, and perhaps do something to make a difference in their lives too. But for now: please, if you have the change and the time to spare, get a Big Issue once in a while – it’s actually not a bad read!


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