OXFORDSHIRE County Council today launched a consultation to work out how it will cut £1.5m from Oxford homeless shelters. With shelters full to bursting in one of the UK’s most expensive cities to live, and food banks doing a roaring trade, what effect will this have on shelter users? Pete Hughes spent the day with The Big Issue in Oxford to find out how easy it is to end up without a place to live and how difficult it can be to get your own home again
SUMMER is the hardest time to try to sell The Big Issue, according to vendors.
Keiron Hollinrake, who works at Oxford train station and in Broad Street, said on two days last week he didn’t sell a single copy.
The trouble is, he said, people assume “summertime, and the living is easy”.
But the price of a bottle of water or a sandwich doesn’t change with the seasons.
The best time for selling the magazine turns out to be Christmas, presumably because people take pity on the sellers in the cold.
Liz Edwards, who works for The Big Issue Foundation in Oxford, said one of the biggest problems vendors face is stereotypes.
She said: “There are a whole lot of misconceptions about homelessness and The Big Issue.
“If people just take a bit of time to look for the characteristics of The Big Issue vendors, you can do something really positive.
“Getting to know the real people can make a huge difference.”
One of the misconceptions that The Big Issue sellers are currently facing is rogue traders.
These impostors aren’t registered with the company, so are not obliged to adhere to the code of conduct which forbids begging and approaching people. Often the rogues will have just one out-of-date magazine, sometimes not even The Big Issue.
Ms Edwards, who has been in her role since September, said: “The rogue vendors are perpetuating the mythology of bad behaviour which is what we are trying to move away from.”
Working with The Big Issue Foundation, Ms Edwards’s job is a service broker.
She helps The Big Issue sellers get access to counselling or health services or get basic resources like an ID card or a passport.
Of the county’s 36 The Big Issue vendors, 28 work in Oxford’s 18 designated pitches, including Botley, Headington and Summertown.
On average, vendors buy about 40 magazines to sell a week. They pay £1.25 for each magazine and sell them to the public for £2.50, making a profit of £1.25. In Oxfordshire, the not-for-profit company sells 1,100 magazines a week.
Vendors like Mat Thomas, who works in St Aldate’s, say it makes a real difference to their lives, giving them a structure to stick to and a steady source of income.
Another thing which can make a big difference is the city’s shelters, which are free.
More than just a dry place to sleep, shelters like O’Hanlon House in Luther Street and The Porch Steppin’ Stone Centre in Magdalen Road provide activities, courses, support and access to counselling.
In the 2013/14, 114 households were accepted by Oxford City Council as homeless in Oxford — an 11 per cent increase on the year before. Ms Edwards warned: “Any money taken away from homeless services will cause problems further down the line.
'Council is sending out the wrong message'
“The name originally comes from a Dutch land owner who came to Yorkshire and there have been Hollinrakes there for 1,100 years,” explains Keiron Hollinrake.
“That’s what you get from a private education.”
Born in Portsmouth, Mr Hollinkrake, 39, came to Oxford five years ago for drug rehabilitation treatment at The Ley Community.
Convicted of car theft and burglary in Canterbury, he was offered the treatment as an alternative to a prison sentence.
Having struggled with drink and drug problems for most of his life, and struggling to find housing, he was told completing the programme could help him get housed.
So he finished the two-year course, got a job as a delivery driver and got a house in Ambrosden near Bicester.
Three months later he lost his job, could not pay his rent and he was homeless again.
He said: “Half the people I know on the streets have no mental health problems, no drug problems, they just lose their job and the council won’t pay their rent. The homeless shelters are full up with people who had a roof over their head their whole lives.
“It’s clogging the system up.”
Mr Hollinkrake, who stays at O’Hanlon House shelter, said Oxford City Council’s “No second night out” campaign to stop people sleeping rough had only made matters worse.
He said: “It sent the message to the rest of England — come to Oxford and get a place to stay.
“In the past year I have seen a lot of people coming to Oxford and I’m thinking, ‘are you coming here because you’ve seen the adverts?’ “It’s such a difficult question because the housing need in Oxford is horrendous.”
Despite being an official Big Issue vendor, he said he is losing money “hand over fist” to beggars.
Mr Hollinrake, said: “Last week I had been stood there for hours and people were ignoring me.
“So, I put my jacket down and started begging and some idiot gave me money.”
Big Issue has helped me focus on life
By selling The Big Issue, Mat Thomas has raised enough money to take his youngest son to visit his parents in Spain this September.
There was a time when Mr Thomas, 45, originally from London, didn’t see either of his children, now 20 and 17, who live in Redhill near Croydon.
He struggled with drink and drugs and the law, and he said for a while it was better for them if he didn’t see them.
Mr Thomas came to Oxford ten years ago. In that time he cleaned himself up, fell off the waggon, and finally cleaned himself up again.
He has now been sober since October, and he said, The Big Issue had been a “huge part in that”.
He said: “It gives my day structure, gives me something to do and money that I make legitimately. I also get to meet people and make new friendships.”
He said Simon House shelter where he is currently staying, on Paradise Street, had also been a big part in his staying clean.
He said: “A year ago I was sleeping under a tree on Manzil Way, I hadn’t changed my clothes in three months.
“If I hadn’t been able to come to the night shelter I would probably still be sleeping rough.”
With Simon House, he has taken a course in counselling with Oxfordshire County Council’s Adult Learning Service.
The father-of-two said having help to get off the streets was essential. He said: “You can’t break yourself out of that cycle of drink and drugs.
“You have to find the willingness, and realise if you carry on, you could end up dead.
“The more options you have, the better.”
Sympathy? Forget it
Some people might find it hard to sympathise with Felix Delight, but then he isn’t asking anyone for sympathy.
Just over a month ago, Mr Delight, 35, had a flat in Bristol and a job selling donuts.
Then, he said: “I’d had enough of Bristol. I was getting nowhere so I thought I might as well leave.”
So, Mr Delight exchanged his flat, where he had been for three years, for sleeping rough on St Giles in Oxford and selling The Big Issue.
He said: “Some people are just natural drifters.”
Having been in Oxford briefly about five years ago, he decided to come back and give it a longer try because, he said, “it felt like a safe place”.
However, because he is new to the city and has no long-term links, he is not entitled to a place at a night shelter, under city council policy.
Despite that, he said, O’Hanlon House allowed him to take a shower and fed him.
He said: “They have great food.”
Mr Delight said he doesn’t plan to stay in Oxford, but is not yet sure where he will go.
Wherever he goes, however, he will keep a souvenir of his time in the city — after a month-long trial of selling The Big Issue, he is now an official vendor, and will be allowed to sell it to make money wherever he ends up.
How to spot a rogue Big Issue trader
- REGISTERED Big Issue vendors have to abide by a code of ethics to sell the magazine.
- The safest way to tell if a seller is authorised is by their badge.
Other signs to look out for are:
- The red tabbard: all vendors are offered a red, Big Issue tabard to wear after they have completed their first month’s probation
- How many issues? Rogue vendors will often find a single old copy of The Big Issue or even another magazine and hold it while begging to look “legitimate’’
- Asking for money? Big Issue sellers are not allowed to ask for money or even approach people.
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