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The uncomfortable reality beyond the ‘dreaming spires’

Oxford (PA)

To study at Oxford is a great privilege and joy. But leaving college, it isn’t long before I notice something, or rather someone, that seems to jar with the long-spun narrative of the city of ‘dreaming spires’ and Wonder-land stories. There is an awkward presence to be found up and down city streets, hunched in a corner or out in the pavement, asking that embarrassing question: “spare a little change?”

The fact is that Oxford has a disproportionately large number of ‘homeless’ persons relative to its population, from permanent tent-dwellers to temporary rough sleepers, residents of ‘half-way houses’ after prison or mental health breakdown, and those who make their homes in dilapidated boats on the canal. The local council’s emergency hostel sleeps about 60 and is full, as is the supported housing programme, which can accommodate a further 100 people. What’s more, due to violence and drug-taking in these institutional contexts, those who are eligible are discouraged from accessing all the services provided, whilst arbitrary restrictions limit the ability of many of the most needy to get the support they need.

Such people are awkward, jarring, or embarrassing because they challenge us. Firstly, they challenge our assumptions of ever-increasing economic prosperity. Secondly, they challenge our prejudices about the reasons why people ‘fall out of the bottom’ of this shiny, aspirational consensus. A recent study of the causes of homelessness in Oxford showed that whilst the majority perceived drug misuse to be the main factor behind housing difficulties, the main driver was in fact the fall-out from relationship break-down. Thirdly, as this fact highlights, they challenge us to pierce the objectivising veil that sees ‘the homeless’ as a socio-economic problem to be solved, rather than as individual persons to be valued and loved.

Many of the most powerful encounters with people in this situation have been whilst working with the Oxford Companions , an auxiliary organisation of the Order of Malta. It is a highly motivated volunteer group made up of students and academics at the university. The group takes inspiration from the charism of the Order of Malta, which speaks of service to “Our Lords the poor”. This is not a utilitarian concept, but one in which its members see in those they assist the face of Christ – and thus those who volunteer are the true “servants” of those they serve. In this spirit, small groups of volunteers carry soup, sandwiches, and companionship out to street sleepers four evenings a week. This mobile outreach is balanced by a static drop-in centre on Saturday afternoons, offering showers and washing facilities, fresh clothes, food, and a place to relax, chat, and read the newspapers.

But these perhaps commendable actions are not going to heal a relationship, cure an addiction, or procure an apartment for those we meet. It is important to acknowledge this, because it is levelling. We’re not interested in who Jason could be if he weren’t illiterate, but in who he is now, and how knowing that God loves him can teach us about love and about God. This work is not about Dives giving to Lazarus in some Christianity-infused guilt trip, but is about building relationships, reciprocal connections between persons, in which both parties are equally human and equally respected.

And this understanding also lies behind the Companions’ work with children who find themselves excluded from mainstream education through disability or learning difficulties, and with the elderly, especially those with few family and friends to visit them, disabilities which prevent them from leaving home, or diseases such as dementia. The beauty and light of the God-made individual person can be hidden as they are subsumed into a group, which de-personalises them by defining them according to a particular socio-economic problem. This phenomenon, which can create or exacerbate precisely those problems which these groups are identified to tackle, is that which the Companions work to counter, putting in over one thousand hours of voluntary work since this time last year.

Meanwhile, when I meet Mike, Sharon, and Andy on a damp Friday evening, these high-sounding ideas find physical expression in the simplest of ways: laughter across a warm handshake, a request for more sugar in the tea next time, enquiries about mutual friends, and an assurance to say a prayer for a forthcoming operation or, given the time of year, upcoming exams.

Simon Whittle is the President of the Oxford Companions of the Order of Malta Theology Undergraduate at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford