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University accused of refusing to open empty buildings to rough sleepers

Oxford University has been accused of refusing to open up its empty and unused buildings to the homeless over the winter by Green councillor David Thomas.

Thomas condemned the University for its “lack of imagination and genuine compassion and empathy” in regard to Oxford’s homelessness crisis.

The Green Party reportedly approached the Council and the University in February to ask if there were empty buildings in Oxford that could be opened to the homeless, with the hope of reducing the number of people sleeping rough in sub-zero temperatures over the winter.

But despite the Council reporting there are over 300 empty homes in the city, and the University also noting that they had many empty buildings in their possession, neither body would make a single building available.

Oxford University told Cherwell: “We have been in talks with Oxford City Council and Oxford Homeless Pathways, but unfortunately we do not have any available buildings which would be suitable for temporary use as a homeless shelter.

“We want to continue our conversations with the City Council and we will offer help if a suitable building becomes available. We are genuinely committed to working with these partners to help Oxford’s homeless, particularly as winter is approaching.”

Thomas suggested however that in conducting their investigation into empty buildings, the University established so many conditions and unrealistic standards that they set it up to fail.

He added that the University failed to see the buildings from point of view of homeless people, who often have the skills to bring buildings up to minimum health and safety standards.

Thomas said he suspects the University and colleges have plenty of appropriate buildings available, and that if colleges and students knew about this they could mount pressure over the question of: “why the hell will there will be empty buildings in Oxford city centre with men and women out in sub-zero conditions this winter?”

The University claimed that none if its unused properties were suitable for accommodation.

The request by the Greens came after the homeless community successfully cooperated with Wadham College over Iffley Open House. Last winter, a group of around twenty homeless people, known as Iffley Open House group, used squatter’s rights to take possession of a disused Volkswagen garage on Iffley Road owned by Wadham College.

On occupying the building, they converted it so health and safety was up to standard, and stayed for several weeks. Councillor Thomas negotiated between the homeless and the college, so that the two groups settled on an end date for the squatters with the result that there was a smooth handover of the building when the date came.

Thomas suggested that the homeless group demonstrated that they could go into a building, use it for a temporary period and not pose any danger and raise health and safety up to standard.

Thomas further claimed that the group showed the possibilities opened by allowing the homeless to use empty buildings in this way. With many of the group getting their housing, education, and health sorted – so that a portion of the group got off the streets permanently.

He pointed out the benefits of such stability for homeless people, telling Cherwell: “If you have nowhere to keep your stuff, to sit down, and you spend all your time just surviving, you don’t have time to make plans and get set for the future.”

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