Housing

Homeless in Oxfordshire: One mother survives by pitching a tent

'I lost my job, couldn’t afford the local rent, but wanted to stay close to my five-year-old daughter. So I pitched a tent...'

Property rental values have risen beyond the reach of many. Those who need to claim housing benefit are hindered by the local housing allowance, which does not reflect or take into account the amount of rent that private landlords demand, especially in areas where accommodation is highly sought after.

In my case, faced with a gap in employment, I see homelessness as another one of life’s hurdles. I am really looking forward to finding a job that I will enjoy – something other than a PA or admin post – but until then I need to stay in this area to be close to my daughter. So last autumn, with the local rental market in Oxfordshire more than I could afford, I decided to pitch a tent on a nature reserve and continue my life as normally as possible.

The social stigma attached to someone who finds that they don’t have a ‘roof’ is demoralising, so it is no wonder that a percentage of homeless people remain hidden. Having met with a local female vicar it became apparent that I was not the only one who had decided to pitch a tent in the locality – there are several others dotted around the outskirts of this market town in Oxfordshire.

With a pop-up tent, wooden table and fold-away chairs, strings of white LED lighting hung up among the laurels and ivy-strewn trees, I made a temporary home. The spot I chose happens to be along a river path, close to a weir, where I can appreciate the beautiful sound of constant gushing water along with the sound of barking muntjacs at night. It is one of many nature reserves in the area blessed with all manner of creatures, including various breeds of dog-walkers.

With a pop-up tent, wooden table and fold-away chairs, strings of white LED lighting hung up among the laurels and ivy-strewn trees, I made a temporary home

Creatures within the camp include two resident robins who literally warble and dance when they see a bag of peanuts being opened, a flurry of blue and long-tail tits, two flapping dunnocks, goldcrests, wrens, a handsome shy, portly fellow of a blackbird, an occasional appearance of a sociable great spotted woodpecker, shrews, two mice – it was three until an owl came swooping down early one morning – two voles, two intelligent but cheeky rats – I’ve nicknamed one of them Ratatouille – and an extremely cheeky squirrel who I often get cross with for stealing food and whom I hold responsible for making a few dents in the pop-up tent.

It is their established home ground and I respect that by being as environmentally aware as possible, leaving the camp clean and tidy. This has been noted by the group of people that take care of the reserve who fully appreciate the fact that I do respect the site and in turn, I have been welcomed.

For a minimal amount each month, membership at the local leisure centre enables me to have a shower, swim or sauna when needed. This also gives me the chance to charge up the mobiles while drinking hot tea for breakfast. I use a second mobile for listening to music in the evenings. There is a laundrette 20 minutes away on foot.

Camp fires are lit only occasionally and the wood smoke lingers across the water and reserve – the best way to heat the pop-up tent, I find, is by using candles. These help by getting rid of dampness but they must be used with caution for obvious reasons. Using them also tends to leave black carbon dust everywhere – let me know if you have an alternative form of heating and lighting.

Dog walkers keep a regular eye out on my behalf, as do local fishermen. There is one night fisherman who uses a decoy duckling-in-distress call to attract the attention of predatory pike – a trick that actually works! A few passers-by have crept in taking pictures, making comments such as how they admire how I live. My five-year-old daughter (who I must quickly add doesn’t camp with me) came up with a prospective business idea of providing hospitality to people who would like to stay overnight…

But really, it has been a wonderful time and I would wholeheartedly recommend setting up a similar situation for those who find themselves without a ‘roof’, there is a real sense of freedom and you’re not directly reliant on anyone else. It gives breathing space to think and to plan for the future.

I look on this as a temporary measure until better opportunities trot my way. Our local MP has done good for me recently – I owe her and her parliamentary team a big thank you, although the local authority is still pushing the idea of finding accommodation in the private sector where I’ll probably be subjected to rent increases. Crisis in Oxford have also been very supportive in many ways – a truly wonderful team of people, they even hold survival cookery courses in their busy schedule for members.

Many people that I have met remain sleeping in dangerous places because there is limited emergency shelter for them to move to

What I would really like to point out is, if faced with homelessness, it might be better and far healthier to camp ‘rough’ under the stars rather than sleep in a doorway or on concrete, where you are very vulnerable and might be subjected to aggressive passers-by.

I absolutely understand the need that rough sleepers prefer to remain close to family and friends who are often based in large urban areas, but there are always pockets of green areas, such as nature reserves or common land, where you might be welcome to set up camp for a while until circumstances improve.

Schemes such as No Second Night Out (NSNO) restrict, often stipulate, that you must remain within city or town limits so that you can be found sleeping rough (perhaps in a doorway) and therefore be verified as homeless. You might be offered hostel accommodation, but many people that I have met remain sleeping in dangerous places because there is limited emergency shelter for them to move to. So they continue sleeping rough for a second night, then a third, a fourth and so on, in a doorway so that the NSNO team can keep in contact.

The main problem with pitching up in the UK is the weather – rain causes dampness and tends to ruin almost everything, given half the chance. Place books and documents in plastic zipper files if you can – I’ve had to return library books in a damaged state with an apology. The further north you are, unfortunately, the worse the weather. On a really cold night I’ve burnt up to 12 candles on one side of the tent in an attempt to survive -7C!

As in all cities, towns and surrounding areas, there are potential problems with pitching a tent. You might experience vandalism, theft, aggressive or dangerous behaviour – but by alerting the local police/community support officers of your existence, perhaps getting an emergency number from them, you minimalise the risk and help safeguard yourself. I’ve had a rocket firework aimed into my camp. It missed the tent by inches, probably kids larking about for fun.

So if you do decide to go ahead and pitch up a campsite, do a little research first into the area to make sure it is fairly safe for your new temporary home.

To protect the identity of herself and her daughter, the author wishes to remain anonymous. The photograph is a stock image

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