Oxford had the chance to showcase the innovative support provided for people experiencing homelessness in the city with a visit from HRH The Earl of Wessex. Partners from Oxfordshire Homeless Movement greeted The Earl and shared how local organisations had adapted their work in response to the pandemic.
During his visit, The Earl of Wessex heard how partners in Oxfordshire Homeless Movement (OHM) have worked together to provide accommodation and support for people sleeping rough in the city during COVID-19. In March 2020 the Government wrote to all local authorities calling on them to get ‘everyone in’, and to ensure every person who was sleeping rough or living in shared hostels had access to safe, self-contained accommodation during the pandemic. The Earl visited three venues in the city that have been crucial in helping people to come inside and offering them the support they need.
The first was a property in Becket Street, which is owned by Nuffield College and has been loaned to charity Aspire Oxford for two years. They have revamped the properties for up to 30 people experiencing homelessness to nowlive in, whilst Nuffield plan for their long-term future use. The Earl met OHM Chair Jane Cranston, OHM Project Manager Yvonne Pinner and Aspire CEO Paul Roberts to learn more about Oxfordshire Homeless Movement, before being shown round the building by Mr Roberts and April McDonnell. His Royal Highness spoke to current residents, all of whom were women who had benefited from specialist support to work through the issues that led to them becoming homeless. They have been involved in furnishing the property and caring for the garden, giving them a sense of ownership and belonging.
His Royal Highness then visited Floyds Row, a central hub and shelter for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. The building, owned by Oxford City Council and run by St Mungo’s, had only opened two months before the pandemic struck, and had to be temporarily repurposed as a triage centre because residents could not isolate safely in the building. Members of the St Mungo’s team described to The Earl the moment they heard the news they needed to relocate the 25 people staying at Floyds Row into emergency accommodation immediately.
The council’s Homelessness Manager Paul Wilding explained to The Earl how the council had forged new partnerships to provide COVID-safe accommodation in hotels and student rooms, and how Floyds Row was and continues to be an integral part of the recovery from the pandemic. His Royal Highness heard how St Mungo’s, the council and other OHM partners are providing extra support and move-on accommodation to avoid a return to the streets, in particular for those clients who have a history of prolonged periods of rough sleeping and multiple support needs.
The final stage of The Earl’s visit was to The Gatehouse, which has been operating as a drop-in day centre for the people in need for over 30 years, and is where OHM’s Lived Experience Advisory Forum (LEAF) is based. LEAF ensures that people with current or recent experience of homelessness are consulted as part of local planning and decision-making. LEAF founders Katrina Horne and Nikki Aitchison, together with Co-Chairs Rowan Wilkie and Monica Gregory, explained to His Royal Highness how the group is sharing the voice of lived experience to influence councils and research bodies in the county.
Jane Cranston, Chair of Oxfordshire Homeless Movement, said: “We were delighted when His Royal Highness accepted our invitation to visit projects in Oxford that are helping those who have, often through no fault of their own, experienced homelessness. We were proud to demonstrate how Oxfordshire, with genuine partnership working, is able to provide better directed support to the people who need it most and who may have fallen through the gaps in the past. His Royal Highness showed extensive knowledge of the issues, and his interest in what he saw and the people he met was a real boost for us all.”
Paul Roberts, CEO at Aspire Oxford, said: “Aspire is honoured that His Royal Highness included our housing project at Becket Street on the schedule for his visit to Oxford. The women’s home is part of a wider project involving five empty houses made available by one of the colleges for repurposing. By refurbishing and transforming these properties with the beneficiaries’ participation, we were able to rapidly introduce supported accommodation in Central Oxford. Not only have we been able to provide each person with a safe place to live, but having a stable home is now enabling them to think about the longer term, looking into education, training and employment: all areas that call upon Aspire’s core skills.”
Paul Wilding, Rough Sleeping and Single Homelessness Manager at Oxford City Council, said: “It was a pleasure to be able to tell The Earl of Wessex how we’ve worked closely with other Oxfordshire Homeless Movement members to help people experiencing rough sleeping off the streets, both before and during the COVID-19 emergency. During the pandemic we’ve used Floyds Row to give people the right support to come inside and make plans to leave the streets behind for good. We hope the vaccination programme will allow a full return this year, putting Floyds Row back in its proper place as the centrepiece of our joint work to prevent and end the need for anyone to sleep rough in Oxford.”
Matthew Rudd, Regional Head at St Mungo’s, said: “We were delighted to be able to meet His Royal Highness and talk about the incredible work our teams have done during the last year. The pandemic offered us a unique set of circumstances and enabled us to work together with our partners to support some of the hardest to reach people in our community. We have seen many people connect, for the first time, with vital services in Oxford to support with drug and alcohol use, mental health, physical health and wellbeing. A great deal of work is now happening to avoid people returning to the streets, and the hope is that we will see a continued reduction in the number of people that are without a home.”
Katrina Horne, CEO at The Gatehouse, said: “Lived experience representation is at the heart of and leads what we do. LEAF champions and amplifies lived experience voices in coproduction, offers opportunity and progression for the members and impacts service change for the better. In a nutshell, we believe people living the experience are the real experts!”