Homeless Oxfordshire is the largest provider of supported accommodation across the county, accommodating 220 people each night. Through ten innovative projects, Homeless Oxfordshire provides the person-centred support people need to recover from homelessness for good. From meals and accommodation, to running training courses and supporting people to manage a tenancy, they help individuals build the confidence, resilience and life skills needed to live independently.
We spoke to Claire Dowan, Chief Executive of Homeless Oxfordshire about how to take action.
Daily Info: Living in Oxford, we're confronted with the homelessness crisis wherever we go and it's easy to feel powerless or guilty for not knowing how to help. What's the best thing someone can do to help the homeless people we see?
Claire Dowan: The notion of helping “the homeless people” is interesting. I would start by challenging ourselves and ask what are we being “confronted” by? The idea of being confronted suggests something that is being done to us but I would argue that the narrative needs to change, and we should accept that homelessness is something we are all part of; we share the streets and live in the same community - this is a whole society issue. I agree it’s easy to feel powerless or guilty. But we shouldn’t be afraid of this feeling. Walking around Oxford, it is perhaps more striking than in other cities because of the contrast between wealth and poverty. As empathetic and caring people we do feel guilty, it is a fundamental response.
What we are being confronted by is the impact of austerity. Welfare reforms and cuts in sector funding recently saw government spending fall by 59% since 2010 -11. At Homeless Oxfordshire, we lost £250,000 from cuts in 2016 and then received an injection of new funding in 2018. But the lack of continuity in funding means you are consistently stopping and starting projects and the impact of this is that people lose accommodation and then lack the stability to make change in their lives.
Homelessness is a structural issue because of a lack of suitable and affordable housing. But homelessness is not just a housing issue, as cuts in supportive services mean that access to mental health and substance misuse support has decreased. The result of which is an increase in homelessness.
Feeling guilty or powerless can stop us from taking action. Organisations that are working hard to work with people that are homeless need advocates and ambassadors, people that can share skills and time. That’s how you can help.
DI: Do you encourage giving to people directly?
CD: We would never tell people what to do with their money – it’s very much an individual choice. But as an organisation, we believe that by giving money directly to people on the streets, you may inadvertently support drug use or fund people who are not genuinely homeless. Giving food may be seen as a good alternative, but endless pre-packaged sandwiches do not provide ongoing nutrition.
We want to encourage people to use our services, to come in for food or a shower. To work with us and the other organisations in the City to access accommodation.
If you want to help, get involved with the diverse range of great organisations and community groups that exist in our City that need donations (financial or in-kind) and work with volunteers.
DI: If I donated money to you through your website, where does that money go?
CD: It cost Homeless Oxfordshire £3.6m to run last year and in a time of austerity, financial support has never been more crucial.
When a supporter donates online, their money enables us to deliver a person-centred support plan, tailored to meet each individual’s needs. A donation provides a night of accommodation for a client, or an engagement activity to help rebuild a client’s skills and confidence. A donation could pay for a mobile phone, allowing a client to claim the benefits they’re entitled to. Or a donation could contribute to a rent deposit for a client who is ready to move on to live independently. Donations are spent on what they’re needed for, dependent on each client.
No matter how long someone’s journey to recovery takes – a few months or five years – online donations give people the opportunities they deserve, to rebuild their lives and move on from homelessness.
DI: Can you donate your time as well as money?
CD: Of course! We’re always looking for new volunteers to lend a hand in our kitchen at O’Hanlon House. Some days we can serve up to 70 people, so many hands make light work. Volunteers also or run activity workshops in the hostel; we’ve had astronomy workshops, creative writing classes and cooking classes, to mention a few. So we’re always looking for people willing to share their talents and skills with our clients so they can spend their time developing new interests and knowledge.
I think it’s important to remember that by categorising people as one group – “homeless people” - we remove the focus on an individual, their skills, interests and all they may have done before circumstances led to them becoming homeless. While overcoming one of life’s most challenging situations, it is integral to our work that clients feel like human beings, respected and in control of their own lives. A large part of achieving this is to work with clients to reignite their interests and reaffirm their skills as they recover from homelessness.
DI: Tell us about SLEEP OUT! What can attendees expect and how do you get involved?
CD: Our SLEEP OUT! event is the perfect opportunity for someone who does feel “powerless” and “guilty” to make a real difference.
SLEEP OUT! is our annual fundraising event held in partnership with a charity working to prevent homelessness, Aspire. This will be our third event together and will be the best one to date!
Supporters will enjoy a jam-packed evening of entertainment from Edinburgh Fringe Festival comedy duo Sparkle Deli, stand-up by Jericho Comedy, live music from local band Alex Colman, an outdoor cinema screening of Bohemian Rhapsody, and a bedtime story read by BBC3 Fleabag actor, Angus Imrie. And we’ll be joined by The Cheesy Indian who’ll be serving delicious Indian inspired toasties, alongside mocktails and popcorn.
After the entertainment ends, supporters will bed down for the night with only a roll mat, pillow and sleeping bag. Although far from the reality of sleeping on the streets, we hope that by hearing from clients who have been homeless, who are now recovering, supporters will see that donations really do change lives.
We’ve asked each supporter to raise sponsorship to support our work, and the money raised will be split evenly between both charities and will directly support people who are, or at risk of becoming, homeless.
So reclaim your power, take action and make real change happen. Buy your ticket to SLEEP OUT! now.