Breaking the cycle

Recently Oxford City Council made a proposal for a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) that would ban what the council defines as anti-social activities, including begging and rough sleeping.

A PSPO places restrictions on activities in a specific area that are or may likely be detrimental to the community’s quality of life. Violating a PSPO is a criminal offence and can result in a fine of £100.

In opposition to this proposal, Oxford University’s Student Union started an online petition to prevent the PSPO going through. Since the petition began, over 68,000 supporters have signed. Many people have asked if a PSPO would be the best way of addressing this problem, rather than asking how people can be better supported. In response, Oxford City Council issued a statement saying that the proposed order would not criminalise people who are homeless but would cover “a small number of people [who] continue to beg and sleep on the city’s streets despite receiving support and having been allocated accommodation.”

Alex Kennedy is the campaign manager for Crisis, one of the many charities that work in conjunction with Oxford City Council to tackle problems of homelessness and poverty. He also commented on the issue:

“I don’t know exactly the individuals that the council are speaking about but if people have been offered accommodation and are still sleeping rough… often there are understandable reasons for that.

“Some people who have had previous drug and alcohol problems don’t then want to spend time in a hostel if lots of the people they will be living with have got drug and alcohol problems themselves.

“I just want to question why it might be that somebody who has seemingly been given an offer of shelter is sleeping on the streets. I would want to look into the reasons for that rather than think fining is going to solve the problem.”

Oxford has one of the highest rates of homelessness per capita in the country, with 50 to 100 people sleeping in shelters each night. Given the high levels of homelessness and need for housing in Oxford, many people eligible for support and accommodation may not be able to access them. Some people facing homelessness do not want to engage with homelessness services for any number of reasons, not least among them being the unsafe or restricted conditions of shelters.

While being fined and cautioned will not help to break the cycle of homelessness, it may at this time be the most that the council can do. Ideally, anyone in a vulnerable situation would get as much care as they need, but practically speaking sometimes all that the authorities can do is minimise the risk of violence, both to people living on the streets and others. Often PSPO’s are a last resort, as are Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBO’s). There could well be a lot more about the proposed PSPO and the reasons behind it that we don’t know.

It is unclear what effect the PSPO would have on people who have lost their support and accommodation due to eviction, an inability to pay rent or problems adjusting to life in a shelter. A Homeless Link report has shown that people with more complex needs are more likely to lose their support and housing. When it comes to what we can do to help break the cycle, Homeless Link concludes that a flexible and preventative approach to shelter procedures reduces the likelihood of eviction and abandonment. Responding to incidents such as late rent by communicating with residents and giving support where needed is more effective than an impersonal warning. When you are or have been homeless, adjusting to life in accommodation is an uphill struggle. Worse still is the fact that sometimes there are no simple solutions to the complex problems of living on the streets.

One thing is clear: that we need to work together to make things better. New Hope is grateful for the support of the local councils and police, with whom we work to reach as many people as possible and to give them access to support as well as hope that things will get better. Hopefully this encouragement will give them the strength not to give up, even when the situation seems desperate.

Alex Charlton