Oxford City Council has secured 124 rooms of interim housing for the next year; that means there need be no return to the streets for former rough sleepers currently housed in hotels and student blocks.
The council has reached an agreement with A2Dominion to lease Canterbury House until July 2021. It has also extended its current lease on the YHA until the end of March.
On 26 March, the government issued an ‘everyone in’ direction for English councils to provide emergency housing for rough sleepers and vulnerable homeless people to prevent the spread of coronavirus. In Oxford, this included people sleeping on the streets and those in Floyds Row and the sit up (assessment) service at O’Hanlon House. To date, there have been no confirmed cases of the virus among homeless people in Oxford.
The council has been working closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to deliver interim accommodation, having been identified as a priority area by the COVID-19 rough sleeping taskforce. Dame Louise Casey is leading the taskforce, and the council has applied for funding to support its interim housing scheme from a £105 million pot announced by Government last month.
Canterbury House and the YHA provide 76 and 42 rooms of self-contained accommodation respectively. A further six rooms are available in a block already leased from University College for people displaying symptoms of coronavirus – so far, this has not been needed.
Interim housing is a bridge between emergency lockdown arrangements and more sustainable housing. The acquisition of Canterbury House and extension of the YHA lease mean the council will be able to maintain accommodation for people housed during lockdown as existing agreements with hotels and colleges come to an end this month.
It will also allow the council to provide accommodation and support for people who become homeless over the coming months. This will include winter beds that were provided in shared spaces before the pandemic. The city’s outreach team, also run by St Mungo’s, will continue to support and work with people who have continued to sleep rough during the pandemic with ongoing offers of accommodation and help.
A total of 203 people have been housed in hotel and student rooms in Oxford over the past four months. Of these, 76 have been supported into more permanent housing and this includes a number of people who had been sleeping rough on a long term basis. Consolidating the current patchwork of hotel and student rooms into two main locations will make it easier to provide intensive personal support that helps more people off the streets for good.
St Mungo’s will continue to manage this interim housing from these two locations in addition to the outreach, assessment and support services it currently provides for the council.
Canterbury House on Cowley Road is owned by A2Dominion and is currently in use as student accommodation for Oxford Brookes University. Continued short term use as student accommodation is no longer required so the intention is to use Canterbury House as interim accommodation from the beginning of August. Brookes is now helping students find alternative accommodation.
Converting Canterbury House from student accommodation to interim housing will require planning permission for a temporary change of use. The council is arranging the consultation necessary to facilitate a planning application. It is also working with Thames Valley Police and other partners on plans to inform local residents about the change of use and give them an opportunity to express their views.
The council is in discussion with MHCLG over a share of the £105 million in funding announced by the Government on 24 June. Given the Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping, the council hopes that the MHCLG will extend this interim housing funding beyond the end of this financial year and into the future.
Before lockdown the council was completing the conversion of the assessment centre and shelter in Floyds Row, whose first wing had opened in January. As this intended service contained shared living spaces that meant residents could not practise social distancing, it has been unable to open as planned.
The building is now being used as a triage centre where the council works with St Mungo’s and Luther Street Medical Centre to assess and offer suitable accommodation to newly homeless people.
The council is exploring options to allow the reopening of Floyds Row to provide the Somewhere Safe to Stay service and winter shelter but will not do so unless public health guidance changes. While infection rates among homeless people in England have been around 6-8%, the rate in US shelters – where communal spaces have remained open – is between 60 and 70%. To date, there have been no confirmed cases of the virus among homeless people in Oxford.
“We believe that nobody should have to sleep rough in Oxford and I’d like to thank Oxford Brookes University, A2Dominion, the YHA, University College and St Mungo’s for helping us to provide the interim accommodation that could make our ambition a reality.
“When the government called for ‘everybody in’ at the end of March, we worked closely with MHCLG to secure more than 120 hotel and student rooms in a matter of weeks, and this work has continued with the development of our interim accommodation scheme.
“The lockdown period gave us a unique opportunity to engage with people in emergency accommodation. For many of them, the certainty of a safe bed gave the bit of stability they needed to start having conversations about leaving the streets behind for good. We’ve already helped 76 people to move on into more sustainable housing, and this is something we want to keep doing.
“Interim housing is the bridge between emergency accommodation and more permanent solutions. It also means we’ll be able to keep offering housing and support to people who become homeless over the coming months, including the winter beds that were provided in shared spaces before the pandemic. We look forward to working with MHCLG and Dame Louise Casey’s taskforce to ensure its success and help end the rough sleeping crisis.”
Councillor Mike Rowley, cabinet member for affordable housing and housing the homeless.
“Thanks to the combined local efforts of partners and decisive government action we have helped to protect the most vulnerable in Oxford, getting people off the street and into safe interim accommodation.
“We now have a real opportunity to ensure that as many people as possible do not return to a life on the streets. Nationally, we are delivering 6,000 longer-term, safe homes for former rough sleepers. Together with our Rough Sleeping Initiative this amounts to over £500m funding to help break the cycle of homelessness and end rough sleeping for good.”
Luke Hall MP, Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing.
“A2Dominion has been privileged to work with Oxford City Council to combat homelessness in the city for a number of years now, and we are delighted to be in a position to support this project.
“One of the most positive stories to come out of the past six months has been the way local authorities, housing associations and others have pulled together to help get homeless people off the streets and out of harm’s way.
“We are pleased that our student accommodation at Canterbury House can be repurposed to this end and we are thankful for the hard work of our partners at Oxford Brookes and Oxford City Council for helping to make this happen.”
Steve Michaux, director of residential services, A2Dominion.
“Our vision is that everyone has a place to call home and can fulfil their hopes and ambitions. During the pandemic, where the dangers of rough sleeping have been brought into sharp focus, this has become even more important. We are proud to be working with partners in Oxford to continue proving a safe place for people away from the streets. We’ve worked round the clock to house people in emergency accommodation, including hotels, and this new space at Canterbury House will give people the opportunity to recover and rebuild their lives long term.”
Matthew Rudd, St Mungo’s Regional Head for Oxford.