This Christmas and New Year 2020 have been mercifully warm in Oxford, with the temperature staying at (or above) two degrees at night – so far. Because of this the usual stories about homelessness have not made many headlines yet, despite a huge increase in the numbers rough sleeping. However, almost all of the 280,000 people who are now homeless in Britain do not sleep on the streets – because almost half of that number are children; and children are not allowed to sleep rough. The number of homeless households in the UK rose by almost a quarter in the last twelve months of 2019.  If those who are at threat of losing their home are added in, that figure rose to half a million people by January 2020. One in 200 people are now homeless in the UK, 1 in 24 in parts of London, and statutory homelessness (of people who the state has decided it has a duty to house) has risen overall by 39% in the ten years since 2009. More children in the UK are homeless today that at any time since 2006 (when the situation was improving). Nowhere is homelessness (when broadly defined) falling. The most affluent parts of the country are affected as much (if not more) than the poorest.

Oxford, a symbol of academic and intellectual pride, is a very divided city that has become more divided as the housing crisis worsens. To some, the listed buildings and booming University economy suggests a city thriving. Average incomes for Oxford are almost £10,000 higher than the average for England. Gentrification has transformed almost beyond recognition what were once normal neighbourhoods in the city. But it is only through looking beyond the rose-tinted glasses of seeing such gentrification as revitalisation, and by realising that many people in the city actually have a very low income (because of the very wide spread of incomes), that you can see the unequal city. The vast majority of homelessness in a city like Oxford is hidden. When it is not we are shocked.

Bedding used by people sleeping rough outside the gates of Trinty College Oxford, June 2019

One of the most visible signs of inequality in Oxford are the rough sleepers camped out on the doorsteps of the wealth-built University buildings, or under the great gates of ancient colleges. House prices in Oxford are the least affordable of any city in England and rental prices are the third most unaffordable. Because of this is no wonder that Oxford has one of the highest homeless rates per head of population and that homeless rates in the city have risen far more than in many other areas in the UK. In very recent years most of those who have died while homeless, or in a halfway house, in Oxford were born in Oxford and brought up as children in the city; but Oxford is also a place were people come to seek a better life. It as been estimated that 33 homeless people died in the city between 2013 and 2017; but this may well be an underestimate as we find a far higher number when we look again at the records.

Life expectancy in Oxford is 84.3 for women and 80.6 for men. If you are a man living in North ward in Oxford, you can expect to live to 90; a mere six miles away in Northfield Brook it is 75. For women, the gap is just under 10 years. Similarly, whilst premature mortality in Oxford is a fifth lower than the national average, people living in one area (one ward) were less than 40% as likely to die prematurely between 2014-2016; people in a nearby ward, 30% more likely.

In our study of ward-level premature mortality rates in Oxford 2002-2016, published in December 2019 in the Geographical Journal, we found that in the city overall, premature mortality rates declined over the period and were lower than the average for England and Wales. Disentangling this declining trend reveals substantial differences within the city and in particular increasing numbers of homeless deaths over time: we identified at least 144 homeless deaths in people aged under 65 between 2002 and 2016. Homelessness in Oxford, and nationally, continued to rise after the period for which we could secure data had ended, and deaths among the homeless also increased nationally; a future study may well report even worse results than these.

In one electoral ward alone – Carfax – there were 91 premature deaths. This number had almost doubled since we last looked at these issues in the 1980s. In Carfax, deaths amongst the homeless population accounted for 88% of all deaths under age 65 between 2014 and 2016. The majority of these homeless deaths were of men. Homelessness not only cuts short lives; it increasingly dominates the profile of who dies young in Oxford. For more information on homelessness in Oxford and what is and can be done to help, click here.

People sleeping rough outside the gates of Trinity College Cambridge seven months before Christmas 2019

Oxford is not alone in how visible homelessness has increased so suddenly in recent years; but the vast majority of those who are now homeless in Oxford cannot be seen sleeping rough on its streets; they are hidden away in tents in the undergrowth by the rivers, or in halfway houses; or sleeping on a friend’s sofa, or in other emergency housing provided by the authorities or by a charity for a night (or two). The same is true of Cambridge where, just before Christmas 2019, a woman aged around 30 gave birth at 7am to twins on the street outside Trinty College (11 weeks premature). more than £20,000 has been raised to help her through public donation. Ironically, now that she has children she (and they) has a right to be housed by law – because two of them are children. But thousands of other people, including many who may be pregnant, do not have such a right; hundreds of thousands who do not have young children have no right to a home, and all the time these numbers are rising.

Every week that passes more and more people are under an increased threat of losing their home across all of Britain. Furthermore, for every one of the half a million people who are currently homeless or at threat of homelessness, there are many others who know them, are their mother, father, son or daughter, bother, sister, friend or neighbour. There comes a point when this is no longer ‘other people’, and there comes a point when you realise that it has been many decades, if not centuries, since there were last so many people living rough on the streets and also living under the threat of such a fate. When was it last as bad as this? Even during wartime we found housing for people who were bombed out. You may have to go back to when the fields were first enclosed and people were made landless to find a time when mothers were last giving birth outside the gates of Trinity, Cambridge, and men last gathered to sleep on the small strip of grass outside of the gates of Trinity, Oxford.

Oxford viewed from Shotover hill. Painting by John Baptist Malchair, 1791