People tell you to expect many strange and wondrous things when you get into Oxford University. They talk about Brideshead Revisited, future world leaders, and colleges that look like castles. They speak of punts, balls, and Harry Potter dinners; of great minds, and hard work. But they don’t tell you about the homelessness, and no one prepares you for the crisis on the streets of Oxford.
For many Oxford students, it’s on our first night out in freshers week that the fantasy falls apart. It’s then that we first walk past the soon-familiar sight of bodies in sleeping bags, of people who could be either alive or dead.
As the national rough sleeping figures continue to worsen, Oxford is hurting: Oxford city council recently estimated that the number of rough sleepers has almost doubled in the past year, with a potential 89 people sleeping rough – up from 47 in 2016. The university and colleges, which often stand aloof from “town” matters, own properties throughout the city, some which sits empty or fenced off to keep away rough sleepers. In 2017, 21 homeless people living in an unused university building were given just five days to leave.
As students at the university, we’re uniquely placed to challenge the institution of which we are part. On Your Doorstep, the Oxford student union homelessness campaign, was created so we could fight for those just outside our college walls without homes or even without shelter.
Several dozen of us now meet weekly. We’ve been working with the council, encouraging them to open emergency shelters to rough sleepers on freezing nights. We’ve been pressuring our university and colleges to do more to help the city in whose housing crisis they are very much involved. But many of the problems are national. So we have launched a campaign to repeal a law we deemed indefensible.
The 1824 Vagrancy Act – repealed in Scotland but still in force in England and Wales – is the law that criminalises people for sleeping rough or for begging peacefully. It is the law that allows police to move on rough sleepers solely on the basis that they are sleeping rough – an experience familiar to many in that desperate situation.
This is the law that would have allowed police to move homeless people off the streets of Windsor before the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But this act doesn’t just allow people to be moved on: the credible threat of arrest comes with it. In 2016-17, there were 1,810 prosecutions under the act.
Street homelessness in Britain in 2018 is a humanitarian crisis, but because of a draconian law, it remains a criminal issue. We are not the first to call for the repeal of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, and we may not be the last. Our petition has almost 20,000 signatures and Oxford West MP Layla Moran has given her support, and challenged Theresa May to join her (the prime minister declined).
Meanwhile, there are homelessness activists in almost every Oxford college now, and we continue to demand further action from our university to help those who make their beds on our doorsteps.