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Oxford University to throw 21 homeless people on to the streets

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One of the richest universities in the world, Oxford University, is using a quick, brutal legal tool to evict homeless people. Vanessa Baird reports.

The 21 homeless people who have been living in a disused building in the centre of Oxford since February have been given just five days to leave, a court decided this week.

At the request of Oxford University, the court issued an Interim Possession Order for the squatters to quit Old Mill at Osney, by Sunday 12 March. The building had been left empty by its university owners for seven years.

The homeless group, including elderly people and single women, were recently evicted from a disused VW garage owned by Oxford University’s Wadham College, which is redeveloping the site to create135 student flats. Wadham College described the squatters as ‘good tenants’ and local residents said they were ‘good neighbours’.

Interim Possession Orders (IPOs), introduced in 2012, are a quick and brutal way for property owners to reclaim possession of their unused and neglected property. It becomes a criminal offence to remain in the building 24 hours after an IPO is served. Anyone doing so can face a fine or prison. Effectively, IPOs criminalize homeless people.

Every night, an estimated 100 people are sleeping rough in Oxford, a situation made worse by local council cuts in funding of homeless shelters. Miranda Shaw, a local resident, commented: ‘It’s ridiculous that people are still on the streets in one of the richest cities in the world with so many empty buildings. The university owns so much of the city centre.

‘It would be incredible if the University could show leadership in the face of corrosive cuts at both a national and city level. We are facing a social emergency and this is now the second time that Oxford University has closed its doors. We hope that this will change in the future.’

Usually IPOs are enforced within 24 hours, but the group, now calling itself Osney Open House, were given an extension until Sunday. In a statement read in court they said:

‘The persons unknown feel that an IPO is inappropriate in this case and that a conventional Possession Order would allow conclusion of the negotiations with Oxford University Estates and opportunity to leave the building safely.’

Oxford University said that it requested an extension so that ‘the occupiers are given a few days to pack up their belongings without compromising our right to reclaim the property’.

It added: ‘We have been given to understand that the occupiers will be vacating over the weekend. Homelessness is a serious issue in Oxford, and we will continue to work with local stakeholders on this matter. Osney Open House have made a serious point by drawing attention to this issue, and we hope to continue working with them. In particular, we would like to see how we can work with and support local homeless charities in the future.’

Perhaps by releasing some of their many empty buildings for use by self-help projects to tackle homelessness – like, Osney Open House, for example?

For more info and updates visit: iffleyopenhouse.org

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About the author

Vanessa Baird a New Internationalist contributor

Vanessa Baird lived and worked as a journalist in Peru during the tumultuous mid-1980s, and she maintains a passionate interest in South America. She joined New Internationalist as a co-editor in 1986 and since then has written on everything from migration, money, religion and equality to indigenous activism, climate change, feminism and global LGBT rights. She also edits the Mixed Media, arts and culture section of the magazine.

Vanessa’s books include The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population (2011), Sex, Love and Homophobia (2004), The Little Book of Big Ideas (2009) and, People First Economics (2010). In 2012 she won a prestigious Amnesty International Human Rights Media award.

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