This morning Oxford residents and local homeless people dropped an enormous banner from the front of the old VW garage on Iffley Road declaring “People need homes, empty spaces need people” as a new petition gains momentum and puts pressure on the owners, Wadham College, to support the plight of homeless people this winter.
The building, which has laid empty for two years, was opened on New Year’s eve providing shelter for rough sleepers in response to the growing homelessness crisis.
A group, which included Oxford University students and alumni entered the building after finding, to their amazement, the front door had been left open. A member of the group, Sandra Philips said,
“We have made a temporary home for some of the homeless and rough sleepers of Oxford because council cuts have forced the closure of night shelters and homeless people are dying on our streets. This building lies empty whilst hundreds are without a home or even a roof over their head. We all have an obligation to do what we can to help this situation, everyone is affected by the housing crisis in some way.”
The group have sent a formal letter to Wadham College requesting that they allow the building to remain open as a temporary shelter for homeless people for the next three months, until the worst of the winter has passed.
Oxford University and its colleges own dozens of unoccupied buildings across the city, some of which have been empty for almost a decade.
Latest figures show rough sleeping in Oxford has more than trebled in the last five years. The situation for rough sleepers is now at fever pitch as government cuts force the closure of night shelters across the city. 61 beds were lost in 2016 with the closure of Lucy Faithful which had been offering support to rough sleepers in Oxford for 30 years. A further 202 beds will be lost over the next 12 months as deeper cuts will force the closure of Simon House and Julian Housing.
Neo, a local man living on the streets for over 25 years, who has been staying at the new shelter said,
“A group of us have been staying quietly at the Old VW garage since New Years Day. It’s been a roof over our heads and a break from the frost and rain. This space alone could house every homeless person in Oxford. It’s winter and so now is the time people on the streets need a safe, secure and dry space to help the most vulnerable. Having hot water, kitchen and toilets makes a big difference.”
Local resident Al Chisholm said,
“We’re delighted to finally see the building being put to a good use. It’s been a horrible car garage for years and then just lying empty for the last couple of years, which seems crazy when there’s such a critical need right now for shelter and social housing in the city.”
Jason Spratzel, another member of group involved in opening up the garage for shelter said,
“homeless people are on the frontline of Oxfords housing crisis, but everyone is affected in some way by spiraling rents, runaway house prices, rogue landlords and poor conditions. Although I have a place to rent and a roof over my head I feel the effects, everyone does. So many of us live on the edge – if you lose your job and can’t pay your rent, or have a relationship breakdown, you could so easily end up on the streets.’
The group have set up a petition and are asking the public to sign up and show support for their request to Wadham College to keep the building open for rough sleepers until the winter is over. They have also made a callout for help from volunteers to give up time to run the shelter and to donate tents and blankets.
Wadham has long term plans to demolish the current garage, office buildings and private flats and replace them with 117 students flats, without space for local community or any social housing. The group occupying the space have said that there temporary occupation will not affect Wadham’s redevelopment.
A similar situation occurred in October 2015 when a large building in Manchester, bought by footballers Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville for renovation and the creation of a luxury hotel, was squatted by a group of homeless people before its reopening, saying they just needed somewhere to stay for the winter. The group were given permission by its owners to stay in the building over last winter.
Local residents and businesses have repeatedly approached Wadham and the previous owners of the building to suggest temporary uses for old garage which would create local social enterprise or temporary accommodation for homeless people, yet each proposal has been declined.
The old VW garage became empty in January 2015 and was acquired by Wadham in May 2015. It was previously rented by supermarket Mid-Counties Co-op to Ridgeway VW garage.
The building is currently being transformed from an empty dilapidated shell into a welcoming shelter with kitchen, toilets, hot water, washing facilities and sleeping spaces.
Sign their petition! Here:: www.change.org/p/tell-wadham-college-to-do-the-right-thing-for-homeless-people-this-winter