Tackling homelessness in the Thames Valley

ACTION must be taken to tackle the growing problem of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in the Thames Valley.

The Revd Mary Gurr, Oxford’s Homelessness Chaplain

That was the message at a day held by the Diocese of Oxford to consider how Christians can respond to rising numbers of rough sleepers and soaring rents and house prices. The event was held on Wednesday 26 April.

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The Revd Mary Gurr, Oxford’s Chaplain to the Homeless, said we should never stop and let central Government off the hook. “It is a disgrace what is happening now,” said Mary, who had earlier held up a booklet on homelessness, printed in 2015. “Two of the people pictured on the front died at around the age of 47. I know because I did the funerals.”

Mary was one of the speakers at the day, which saw around 40 clergy and others gather in the Christopher Room in the St Aldate’s Parish Centre. Below the Christopher Room is the basement of the Parish Centre in the city centre of Oxford. The basement was open as a warm place to sleep for homeless people during the coldest part of the winter. Mary said St Aldate’s Rector, the Revd Charlie Cleverly had offered the basement as part of a future Winter Night Shelter Project she hoped would be up and running when the cold weather comes again. The Churches Together in Central Oxford scheme was inspired by the Met Office’s Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP). However, the churches decided the SWEP guidelines were too limited as they only worked temperatures, not wind chill or rainfall.

Mary took on her current role in 2011 and was aware the number of people sleeping rough in Oxford is far higher now than it was then. She introduced Neo, a man who rather than describe himself as homeless, says he chooses to live a nomadic lifestyle. He was the key campaigner who set up the Open House, a group of homeless people who have squatted in disused buildings. The project has raised money to help people get suits for job interviews, passports and other essentials for improving their lives.

“Open House invited Oxford residents, MPs, and all different people and the response was amazing. We accomplished so much in a short time. If we could do that, what could people in power do,” said Neo, who sleeps on Cornmarket Street in Oxford. More recently he has been in the news, appealing for people to give rooms in their homes to people in need of accommodation.

“Two people replied back to offer rooms. I’m also trying to encourage people whose houses are empty because they need doing up, to let homeless people live in them and do the necessary work. There are Polish guys who come to work as painters and decorators. We have access to funding for materials. We are doing this because it is becoming harder and harder to find empty places to squat in legally.”

The Archdeacon of Oxford, the Revd Martin Gorick mentioned the imminent closure of yet another homeless hostel in the Oxford. “I am a trustee of a large charity. We are used to receiving grant applications for £3,000 to £4,000 but now we are getting emergency applications for £90,000 to cover staff costs as funding is being withdrawn. I am aware there is a major change in provision and how we respond to that is quite critical,” said Martin.

Bethan Willis, Assistant Social Responsibility Adviser for the Diocese, presented the concept of place as a gift from God. She described the situation of a woman worried about being forced to leave her home town after her marriage ended. This would mean leaving behind her church, family, and other networks.

Kathy Mohan, Chief Executive of Housing Justice, a Christian charity that works with people of all faiths and none, helping night shelters as well as host families who provide homes. They are currently working with the Quakers on what it means to be an ethical landlord. Kathy described how 1998 legislation allowed private landlords to inflict assured short hold tenancies on people, meaning they had no long-term security of tenure.

“Homelessness takes many different forms. Local authorities take responsibility for housing people who are officially classed as homeless but they are increasingly placing them in the private sector. 28 per cent of those are placed outside their local authority area. People then become isolated, outside of their support networks.”

Insights from the day will feed into a forthcoming publication by Bethan Willis, entitled Dwelling Places.