Homelessness - is it a matter of 'us' versus 'them'?

Image credit: Tom Dorrington

Oxford City Council was under fire last week for its threats of prosecution against the homeless for leaving their possessions in shop doorways. The Council is warning that rough sleepers could face up to £2500 worth of fines for these so-called breaches of the antisocial behaviour laws; with notices that were pinned to the belongings of homeless individuals claiming that the objects were “having a detrimental effect … on the quality of life of those in the locality”, and indicating that the conduct of the homeless is “unreasonable” in this regard. Unsurprisingly, questions are being now being asked as to whether this policy is permissible, appropriate, or even humane; whatever the reasons behind the strategy, Oxford City Council has only succeeded in alienating those who are already in terrible situations.

Homelessness is, of course, an issue stretching across the nation – but, as is clear in Cambridge, it is often in the most affluent areas that the divide between the wealthiest and the poorest in society is most evident. The University towns of Oxford and Cambridge both place a huge focus on celebrating their riches; but, in doing so, they are developing such a vast fiscal schism that it can be difficult for each side to relate to one another at all. As was shown in recent headlines involving Cambridge students and the homeless, once the divide begins to form between rich and poor, displays of belonging to either cohort are frequent and can occur even subconsciously; meaning there is a great difficulty in realising the common humanity between both parties. As Oxford City Council have clearly shown, the innate musk of privilege can be hard to disguise.

But with some homeless individuals even claiming that their possessions have been confiscated by the Council, it is clear that those in charge of Oxford’s streets must do more to establish links with the homeless community in the city, rather than merely disregarding them as an “unreasonable” nuisance. In a town that has previously been marked fourth in the country for homelessness, the problem is clearly already dire; but the answer shouldn’t be a bolstering of the boundary between those who sleep rough and those who do not.

 The problem does not lie with those who sleep in our doorways; it pervades into the establishments that form society itself - and that is not one that can simply be willed away. 

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