Oxford is a city with a historic divide between 'town' and 'gown', in which student life can often feel disappointingly cut off from the rest of the community. However, some student groups want to bridge that gap - and the On Your Doorstep campaign, of which I am proud to be the chairman, is one of them.
On Your Doorstep aims to raise awareness about the complex situation for homeless people in Oxford - whilst the services here are highly regarded, they are about to face a crippling 38% budget cut. Meanwhile, social housing is becoming scarcer and the city has recently been
named the most unaffordable place to live in the UK. So, when we found out in March 2015 that
Oxford City Council were planning to effectively criminalise rough sleepers in the centre of town
using a new Public Spaces Protection Order (a power that allows local councils to ban a range of behaviours which they consider to be 'anti-social'), we decided we had to take action.
On Your Doorstep is a relatively new campaign - we started up in February of 2014, and most of our activities had been with the student population, placing collection tins in colleges for homeless charities, and organising panel discussions and surveys. When we started our petition on Change.org we were far from professional campaigners, but it turns out that if you're passionate about the issue, it's very possible to learn as your campaign progresses, not least through the inspiring people we've met along the way.
Within 48 hours of starting our petition, we had over 1000 signatures, and it became clear that this was an issue of real importance to the local community. As one of our supporters put it, "It is not acceptable to sweep the homeless under the rug in order to make the city more palatable to tourists. This ban would, in effect, criminalise Oxford's poorest residents. This is an abhorrent move on behalf of the City Council and - as is demonstrated by the humongous support of this campaign - goes against the wishes of Oxford residents."
Criminalising homeless activity only increases already high levels of stigma that homeless people have to deal with every day. Policies like this risk treating rough sleepers as a 'problem' to be dealt with, as an inconvenience, as a threat, rather than as individual human beings. Our most vulnerable citizens are deserving of help and support, if they choose to take it - not an enforcement policy that could land them with unpayable fines of £100, or prosecution. To many, it was particularly shocking given that Labour-led Oxford City Council mostly does great work supporting homeless people and services - it seemed at odds with the city's values and a lot of residents tapped into this.
By the time Oxford Council released a press statement on May 18th formally taking rough sleeping out of the proposals, we had the support of 72,280 people.
The media attention that this attracted not only benefitted the campaign and forced Oxford Council to take notice of us, but put us in touch with a fantastic community of supporters who care about the rights of society's most vulnerable. We were able to advise another first-time campaigner on starting a petition against the same measure in Hackney, which also achieved success, and we now have a real army of online supporters who will hopefully be inspired to campaign in their hometowns when rough sleeping PSPOs are proposed. It's incredible that our petition has catalysed a national movement for change - a movement that will stand up to local authorities and support the voices of those who are not often heard. At a time when many of us feel hopeless in the face of continuing austerity and welfare cuts, to me that's real proof of the power of ordinary people to come together and change society for the better.