Owners of bags left outside a shop on Cornmarket Street have moved their belongings two days after the issue of a Community Protection Notice ordering their removal, leaving behind a soiled duvet and some cardboard.
Community Protection Notices have been served across the city centre as of last Wednesday, giving rough sleepers less than 24 hours to move piles of belongings. The notices, introduced under Section 43 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, were intended to prevent behaviour which could negatively impact the quality of life of the local community. Potential sanctions for noncompliance include fines of up to £2,500.
The notices were almost immediately embroiled in controversy, however, as some items marked with notices were actually donations from the public, intended to help the homeless. Oxford’s Green councillors have openly criticised the city council’s move, calling it “totally outrageous”.
Oxford City Council has issued a press release defending their actions, beginning with the statement that “this is a fire safety issue” and that they “asked the owners of the bags on numerous occasions not to obstruct the fire escape” where the bags were left. The council said that they gave the owners two days to move their belongings, and “no one was fined.”
“This is a fire safety issue”
The council added: “Each year we spend £1.4m on homeless services, including day services providing food, laundry and shower facilities, outreach and resettlement services, mental health support, and a broad range of accommodation including provision for young people, people with complex needs, those who are working and emergency provision in winter. We also fund a range of services that provide support, including the Big Issue and education, training and employment services.”
Apart from this one instance where they had to “balance the desire for people to leave their possessions in a fire escape with the risk this posed to the people working in the building”, the council has refrained from commenting on the other instances of Community Protection Notices being issued.
The move has proven controversial enough to reach national coverage, with attention from the Guardian, the BBC and the Independent. The Big Issue, a newspaper with many homeless vendors in Oxford, said on the fines: “Homeless people want to hold onto everything they own. Understandably. In Oxford it has become a struggle to do so.”
“In Oxford it has become a struggle”
This is not the first time Oxford City Council has come under fire for such policies – plans proposed in 2015 would have had bans introduced against infractions including rough sleeping, public drinking, pigeon feeding, non-compliant busking and persistent begging. The plans were shot down amid accusations of criminalising homelessness, aided by a petition set up by OUSU group On Your Doorstep. The petition garnered almost 72,000 signatures, urging the council to rethink the proposed ban.
The services offered to the homeless in Oxford and Oxfordshire have been deteriorating over the last two years. Cuts to funding led to the closing of Lucy Faithfull House in early 2016, a homeless shelter in the city centre. The increased pressure on other services led Simon House, previously Oxford’s only “dry” hostel – intended to help those housed there to give up alcohol and/or drugs – to stop offering those services, as well as reducing the number of support workers there from 15 to 4. Furthermore, in light of the cuts, Simon House was projected to be decommissioned by April 2018, and Julian House in Oxford and Abingdon has already been closed.
A Change petition urging Oxford City Council to rethink their policy has been set up, and as of publication of this article has 311 signatures.