Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home FeaturesColumnists Is it our place: How are Exeter students impacting the homeless?

Is it our place: How are Exeter students impacting the homeless?

Editor-in-Chief, Jamie Speka, has a look at student impacts on homelessness within Exeter. She wonders, how much do students notice and how much should we pay attention?
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Photo via Wikicommons

“Do you like prosecco?” asks a University of Exeter student to a rough sleeper outside the Co-Op on Queen Street. The homeless man sat with a curious look on his face as the Uni student held up the bottle of leftover prosecco before going about her way to the clubs. Her act is harmless. If anything, she is offering aid. It’s the least she could do–albeit, in the most excessively Exeter Uni student way she could possibly offer aid. A symbolic emblem of class differences in the UK: offering help without understanding what help is needed. 

Exeter is our home for a few years, but these rough sleepers are here until the community decides that they deserve affordable housing. Of which we students, whether we’d like to admit it or not, are taking up in Herculean proportions.

Still, as I walk along the streets of Exeter some drunk students taunt rough-sleepers. Others look away, fearful of making eye contact. The prosecco seems like the best option, in comparison. And as I navigate the differences between students and the homeless, I become astutely aware that we share the streets with people who call these areas their homes. While it’s not our job to support these rough sleepers, shouldn’t we? Exeter is our home for a few years, but these rough sleepers are here until the community decides that they deserve affordable housing. Of which we students, whether we’d like to admit it or not, are taking up in Herculean proportions. So much so, that Lord Best, leader of the Devon Housing Commission, has sought to address the issue in the new commission. He comments for Exeposé on the way students are changing housing in Exeter that “the significant growth in student numbers in Exeter has led to the switch of privately rented accommodation to student housing, and sites for new homes have been purchased by student housing developers who can outbid those building for people in severe housing need.”

Still, as students, it’s easy to build up a barrier between us and the homeless. After all, our university life seems to be preparing us exactly against the very notion of living on the streets. We come from home counties, international schools, or at least with extensive opportunities that have enabled our university life. There are many factors enabling us to feel separated and in turn, apathetic to these issues.

With reports of university students harassing rough sleepers, I sought to decipher student perceptions of the homeless. Where the separation between students and rough sleepers may seem decisively wide, they come to their crossroads on student nightouts. The growing homelessness rates across the country are contributing to our growing interactions with them. 

In a Journo Request by Exeposé of over thirty students, most students believe the rough sleeping issue in Exeter has worsened over the past few years. This comes at a time when hundreds of homeless people are accounted for yearly within Exeter according to a previous FOIA by Exeposé. Students report frequently seeing homeless individuals and consistently having interactions with them. Students explain that they give spare change and warm food to the homeless. Whereas, many are nervous about approaching them.

Students have seen the prevalence of rough sleepers grow exponentially since they first entered University three years ago. Where the cost-of-living crisis is a major factor in their own lives as students, it seems to have played an even larger role in pronouncing the homeless populations. On the High Street, in particular, students are concerned over the sleeping bags and the self-built living spaces placed outside shops. On nights out, they notice that these populations are even more present as rough-sleepers prepare their sleeping bags to rest for the night.

Julian House, a service that provides welfare checks and support services to Exeter rough-sleepers, receives funding from the Exeter City Council (ECC). They tell me that when it comes to students, the cost-of-living crisis combined with the limited stock of affordable housing culminates in a compounded issue within the city. 

With a heightened prevalence, naturally comes students’ fearful perceptions. While Callum Bridges, an outreach worker for Julian House, maintains that “99.9% of the rough-sleepers are harmless”, students are still fearful. A large proportion of students spoken to have commented on feelings of “discomfort” and “fears of violence” especially due to the impact of intoxication from substance abuse. One student “thought [they] were going to get robbed” after a homeless individual asked them for money. Two people have reported either being physically assaulted or knowing someone who was physically assaulted by a rough sleeper at night. Many women students explain that they have had insulting comments yelled at them or that they feel “unsafe” while walking alone at night. While a large proportion of students we spoke to felt unsafe from rough sleepers, Jim McArthy the Service Manager of Julian House, comments that often “violence is the other way around”.

McArthy mentioned “multiple instances of students or young people harassing or assaulting rough sleepers” as narratives that usually go unnoticed. Indeed, students recollect seeing harassment come from other students when they are on a night out. Many believe that drunk students have been affecting rough sleepers in negative ways. One student tells Exeposé that they “do not imagine every University of Exeter student is empathetic to homelessness considering some of the approaches to social classes [they’ve] heard around campus.” Many students have cited that the disproportionate class differences at the University and within the city could further perpetuate these harms towards Exeter’s homeless. 

McArthy and a few students within the Journo Request remind us just how close homelessness is to the average student. One student writes that they were “close to becoming homeless last year”. Another explains how precarious the housing landscape is throughout the country. Indeed, hidden homelessness being a factor among student populations, has been growing. 

To help me write this article, I wanted to take to the streets of Exeter to examine the landscape. I set out into the cold winter one morning in January to meet with a worker for Julian House outside the Community Center. Callum Bridges, an outreach worker for the organization, soon arrived to take me on his rounds. We set out with a nurse, who had brought a bag full of medical equipment, just in case any rough-sleepers needed medical attention. Bridges had his rucksack stuffed with snacks and warm drinks. A bright orange tent sat in the corner of a car park, which Bridges unzipped to accidentally whiff the fumes of “spice” a drug that has been making its way across the homeless population in the nation. Walking down the high street, we stopped numerous times to wake rough sleepers to provide support. Bridges, with two massive thermos’ of hot cocoa and coffee, would pour the hot drinks into cups and provide snacks for them. It was one woman’s twenty-eighth birthday that day; she awoke in tears. 

In conversations throughout the pub about the article I intended to write, I was surprisingly met with criticism. Not so much in terms of how homeless individuals are not deserving of help–though I am sure those conversations arise throughout Exeter–but more surrounding how involved we must be: as students, as citizens, as people who want to make a difference.

In conversations throughout the pub about the article I intended to write, I was surprisingly met with criticism. Not so much in terms of how homeless individuals are not deserving of help–though I am sure those conversations arise throughout Exeter–but more surrounding how involved we must be: as students, as citizens, as people who want to make a difference. Would our support be better received on the streets, talking to rough sleepers? Making them feel a bit more comfortable so that they can navigate these unimaginable conditions? Buying them warm drinks and not being fearful of them as we walk through the streets? Could this mode of support be directly influential in reducing stigma by taking to the streets and trying to understand a situation we have never experienced? 

Or, should support be left to organizations? Should we, as students and citizens, fund the political parties and organizations that specialise in supporting rough sleepers? Is this a better way to activate known methods of mitigating the growing proportions of unhoused people? Should we focus on the bigger picture? How much does our spare change actually make a difference when faced with the supportive measures of organizations? 

I don’t know what the answer is myself and I’m certainly unsure if there is an answer. What I do know–when I saw that woman awaken in tears on her 28th birthday–is that I am sick and tired of having to debate about what modes of support are better than others. It is utterly unproductive to have these conversations about how students can best help the homeless, it keeps us in a state of confusion rather than acknowledging that anything helps. The first point of call must be to reckon with how we, as students, are, in part, an element mobilising the housing crisis. With the very same mobilisation of housing inaccessibility that we bring to the community, we can welcome our momentum to bring about change. Whether that be through managing our own biases, learning about policies in place that can help, or simply rummaging through our bags at the end of the night for some loose change.

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