Statement on the deaths of homeless people

Published: Wednesday, 11th November 2020

A statement from Cllr Mike Rowley, cabinet member for affordable housing and housing the homeless:

Homelessness kills. It takes too many people too early, and every untimely death is a tragedy. I am sorry to have to tell you that on Sunday 25 October it played a part in claiming the lives of three more people in Oxford.

Two people were living in supported accommodation at the time of their deaths and all three were known to have experienced rough sleeping.

A 41-year old woman who had been living in Matilda House since April was found dead in her room.

A 38-year old man was found dead in his room in the YHA.

A 40-year old man who had not been in the adult homeless pathway in 2020 but who had a history of rough sleeping died in a property in Blackbird Leys.

Apart from a history of homelessness there is no link between the three people dying and Thames Valley Police are not treating their deaths as suspicious.

I would like to extend my condolences to the family and friends of all three people who died. We won’t comment further on their personal circumstances except to say that all three of them had been in and around the adult homeless pathway for between four and six years.

We believe that nobody should have to sleep rough in Oxford, let alone die on our streets or in our supported accommodation. Since the government issued an ‘everyone in’ direction on 26 March to protect vulnerable homeless people during the pandemic we have worked harder than ever to do just that.

We moved people out of shared hostel spaces, initially into hotel and student rooms secured at very short notice. We offered the same emergency housing to everyone experiencing rough sleeping on our streets.

As the original lockdown eased and temporary leasing arrangements with hotels and colleges came to an end, we secured agreements to lease the YHA and Canterbury House to provide 118 rooms of interim housing.

Interim housing is a bridge between emergency arrangements and more settled, sustainable housing. It gives us the opportunity to work with people more intensively than before and give them the support they need to leave the streets behind for good.

So far we have housed 261 people under ‘everyone in’ arrangements, with 103 of these supported into more permanent housing. This includes a number of people who had been sleeping rough on a long term basis.

Interim housing also means we can continue to offer help to everyone sleeping on our streets this winter.

We have recently been successful in winning £2m in short-term and long-term funding from the Next Steps Accommodation Programme (NSAP).

The short-term funding will help with the cost of interim housing, provide deposits and rent in advance for people to move into private rented housing, and help Aspire to refurbish empty properties and bring them back into use as move-on accommodation.

The long-term funding will help us to buy five one-bedroom properties as part of a programme to deliver 20 Housing First homes by March 2021, along with three years of support costs.

Traditionally, people who have experienced rough sleeping in the UK tend to move from the streets to independent living in stages. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘staircase’ model. It assumes that people need to engage with support like mental health and addiction services before they are ready to move on to the next stage.

While this approach can work well for people prepared to engage with support and who can cope in shared environments, it can be ineffective for people with complex support needs.

A ‘housing led’ approach such as Housing First turns the staircase upside down. Rather than asking people to show they are ready to become more independent before moving to the next stage, it says that mainstream housing should be offered immediately. Wraparound support can then be provided to help them maintain their tenancies.

Differences between the UK and USA make a direct comparison difficult. However, evaluation of initiatives such as New York’s Pathways to Housing programme suggest that Housing First can help up to four fifths of former rough sleepers while also reducing pressure on other public services.

There is no one simple answer to ending rough sleeping and we cannot eliminate the risk it poses to people who are experiencing or have experienced it. However, the housing led approach can help people who have slept rough long term or who repeatedly return to the streets and we believe its adoption in Oxford will assist our efforts to prevent harm coming to people in future.