Sunday, 6 May 2012

How We Deal with the Homeless Problem in Oxfordshire

    If you were given a heap of money and told you had to spend it deal with some homeless people living in Oxford, how might you proceed? Go on, you can spend it how you'd like.
    Perhaps you'd invest it in some kind of housing, maybe a subsidised rent scheme or something. I'm not a housing expert, but you'd kinda expect the solution to have something to so with housing, wouldn't you.
    In the past few weeks I've seen the authorities spend a considerable amount of money and effort on some homeless people here in Oxford. What they did with their money, and how incredibly useless and damaging the result of it all has been, is such a disaster that I feel it has to be disseminated more widely.
    If you wander round Oxford's more overgrown corners, you'll encounter a homeless community that lives full-time outdoors somewhat unseen in tents and rudimentary shelters. Being a natural explorer and chasing random wildlife I've encountered people living in this way all around the edges of our city, in City of Oxford, West Oxfordshire and Cherwell council districts. These aren't the people you'll see sleeping rough in doorways and they aren't the people who visit the homeless shelters. They are spread about such that they aren't more noticeable in any one place (with notable exceptions of the floating community on the Thames backwaters and that encampment a few years ago where Osney Mead meets the railway) so we don't talk of favelas, barrios or shanty towns. I have no idea how  many of them there are, but since I keep encountering them there must be quite a few people living in this way.
    A few months ago I got to know a pair of tent-dwelling homeless people. They are friends of a friend of mine, and their tent was pitched in some bushes on land owned by an Oxford college.
    I had better make this very clear, they did not choose to live in a tent. They would do anything to find accommodation, but time and time again the system has failed them. They do not seem to fit any of the categories required to advance their case for housing, so they are among the city's long-term homeless.
    I'd also better make something else very clear indeed: They aren't dodgy. The police all know them, and despite their situation, they are not "known to the police". I've seen their interactions with police officers, and there was none of the attitude you get from police when they think they are dealing with a criminal. Neither of them has a criminal record and neither of them has ever been arrested for anything. They were at pains to minimise their impact of the field because they knew to do otherwise would only invite trouble.
    Earlier this year, eviction proceedings were started against them. The owners of the field wanted them out. Which is fair enough, it's their field. So lawyers and courts and enforcement officers and God knows what other legal machinery was brought to bear against them. Without a fuss, at the last possible moment, they moved out. No sense in falling foul of the law when you are as vulnerable as they are.
    What does a homeless person kicked out of one pitch do? They look for another one. Our city has no shortage of forgotten corners, so their tent was pitched once more somewhere else before too long.
    Unfortunately though we then had the wettest April for many years. Their new pitch was flooded, ruining their tent and all their belongings. From camping on someone else's land with semidecent shelter, they're now camping on someone else's land with very inadequate shelter.
    So to summarise the last few paragraphs: a lot of money was spent by both the landowner and the Authorities to evict from a field a pair who really didn't want to be there anyway, and because of that eviction they're now in a much worse state, yet still camping on someone else's land. So nothing much has changed overall, except a lot of money has gone to a load of lawyers, and the two homeless people in question have had their lives made a whole load worse. No doubt in a few months a fresh set of lawyers will be expending billable time to ensure they are moved on again.
    Homeless people like these two do not want to cause problems. They simply want somewhere to live, to get out of the cold and damp. If they represent any kind of problem and any cash is going to be chucked around, it does not take any kind of genius to reach the conclusion that perhaps the problem would go away if the cash was spent on housing them rather than on legal manoeuvres which as I hope I've demonstrated above are pretty pointless. That this doesn't happen does not reflect well upon those authorities responsible for the provision of services to homeless people and is a sad indictment of our society.
    All I can do is write about it here, I'm not some philanthropist or power-broker so I can't put anything right. So my tech blog has been subsumed by a bit of minor political ranting for a while. I think that the above represents such a cock-up that people of most political persuasions should find it as annoying as I do, if you agree with me please share it. Maybe then something positive can happen.

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