By Atticus Stonestrom, Oxford East CLP
Austerity has cast an ugly shadow over Britain’s housing landscape.
Today, as many as one in two hundred in the UK are homeless. Tory cuts to homelessness services have crippled local provision, police persecution of rough sleepers is rampant, and tenant rights remain anaemic, undermined by Thatcher-era landlord empowerment schemes.
This crisis is on clear display perhaps nowhere more than in the streets of Oxford, home – in a meagre sense – to nearly a hundred rough sleepers. The student body artificially inflates rent costs; the city is dominated by the University, a regressive institution that owns tens of thousands of acres of land.
Now, although the magnitude of the problem has secured great interest and engagement from the community at large, local policy change in particular tends to be driven by direct internal pressure from activist groups – see, for instance, the 2015 campaign against a Public Space Protection Order banning rough sleeping in the city centre, or the more recent campaign to expand the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol.
This pressure is naturally accompanied by tension and charged debate, and Oxford Labour – which comprises thirty-five of our forty-eight city councillors – is often divided on the question of homelessness. The intention here is not to sow discord for its sake; instead, it is to question institutional thinking, hold authority accountable, and bypass unnecessary bureaucracy – all vital tasks.
The established narrative surrounding homelessness in the UK is often deeply deficient, and, at times, actively destructive. It is a narrative that leads councils to redirect funding from homelessness services into “Your Kindness Can Kill” campaigns; a narrative that coopts St. Mungo’s outreach teams to serve as de facto immigration compliance agents; a narrative that permits “moving on,” forced removal, the effective social cleansing of city streets. It is, in short, a narrative built upon the myth of the “deserving” poor, right-wing rhetoric of the worst kind: petty, narrow-minded, and reductive.
Provision for the homeless is limited, and, for many, not even an option. It fails to cover those without a local connection, those without legal IDs, or foreign nationals and refugees without recourse to public funds.
Even for those to whom provision is available, there are a host of reasons that it might be less than ideal. Homeless shelters and hostels are usually rife with drug and alcohol use, serving as strong relapse triggers for those recovering from addiction. Theft, bullying, and generally poor conditions are another deterrent, and the often limited space available for animals is a common concern for those with dogs; the list goes on.
Remember, too, the broader context of any dialogue around homelessness in the UK; the widely enforced Vagrancy Act of 1824 makes rough sleeping a criminal offense, revoking, in a cruelly perverse irony, the nearly universal right to free and public space from only the ones who need it most.
Progress in the face of this crisis can come only through difficult questions and strong demands: not only of our political adversaries, but also of ourselves.
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