by Ann Fuehrer,

On May 1, 2022, three members of the Board of Directors of Oxford Citizens for Peace and Justice made a presentation as part of a public conversation on Affordable Housing in Oxford. We were invited by the Eradicating Systemic Poverty Committee of the Oxford Presbyterian Church, sponsors of the event, to talk about our vision and plans to address the basic subsistence needs of some of the most vulnerable members of our Community, individuals and families who, at night, are sleeping in their cars, camped out under tarps in honeysuckle thickets, or couch surfing.

We believe it is a moral commitment to community accountability that resources should be available to meet the basic subsistence needs of all members of the Talawanda School District and Oxford communities. But in calendar year 2021, about 10% of the 422 families served by Talawanda Oxford Pantry and Social Services had no permanent residence. Between March 1, 2021 and February 28, 2022, the Family Resource Center (FRC) provided wrap-around services to 79 individuals who were homeless, and provided referrals to another 22 homeless individuals who did not qualify for FRC’s other services Some community members do not believe that there are people who are homeless in Oxford–they don’t observe street people panhandling. But the Oxford Police Department knows better–they routinely ask people who are encamped on private property to move, or arrest individuals who are trespassing on private property in hopes of finding a warm place to sleep. The FRC cold shelter, which operated at 106% of capacity from November of 2020 through March of 2021, belies the myth of a fully housed Oxford.

We perceive a Field of Horrors instead of a Field of Dreams in Oxford. The implicit message we’ve received from the lack of political will to honor Article 25 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone’s subsistence needs should be met, suggests “If we don’t build it (a shelter for people who are homeless), they won’t come (we won’t attract people who are transient and looking for a meal and a place to sleep, and not finding it in other towns).” The theme of the May 1 event hosted by the Eradicating Systemic Poverty Committee was ““Housing on the Continuum: Homelessness, transitional housing, and affordable housing in the Oxford community”. At the public visioning session to receive input about Oxford’s proposed comprehensive plan, Oxford Tomorrow, held at Oxford Bible Fellowship on the evening of April 18, 2022, public concern about the shortage of affordable housing for residents at all income levels was named and included in a number of City initiatives. However, the continuum of affordability did not reach down to individuals who are only able to afford to squat in empty sheds, or locate their tents along the railroad tracks that separate the Oxford Country Club from the Miami Mobile Home Park. In its February, 2021 “Oxford, Ohio Housing Needs Assessment” report, the Bowen National Research group estimated that approximately .3%, or 67 individuals, in Oxford are homeless. The Family Resource Center’s service statistics from 2021 show that this is a significant underestimation of the need in our community. Recent evictions from apartments and mobile homes that are affordable, but only because the majority (54.0%) of renter households are considered “housing cost burdened” (paying over 30% of income towards housing costs), will increase the number of individuals and families who will be forced to rely on friend and kinship systems for shelter. The majority of people who work in Oxford can’t afford, or choose not, to live in the City.

In February of 2021, friends and members of OCPJ donated $14,000 to the Family Resource Center so that their cold shelter could remain open an extra month, and so that clients of the Center could have some of their housing costs supported during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, We’ve heard the suggestion that some people are living “rough” rather than going to shelters in other cities because they choose to do so–that is freedom of choice. But when faced with a dilemma–remain close to family and a job but have to camp out in a tent, or have access to a warm shelter with a shower but not to be able to interact with family members who live 20 minutes away from the shelter in Hamilton–individuals must struggle to decide which is the lesser of two evils. Local situations require local solutions. We are committed to supporting the good work that is being done by local social service agencies and City initiatives, while also recognizing the dangers faced by a small but significant number of our neighbors who have no good choices that will lead to the stability and dignity that housing in a familiar community, close to job and family, offers.

Homelessness and the dangers of living on the streets are problems everywhere, and have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Cities that successfully address the situations of the most vulnerable members of their communities have clear goals, are not ambivalent in their perspective on the existence and illegitimacy of homelessness, devote bureaucratic resources to providing wrap-around services and housing options–the labor involved in connecting with and supporting individuals in need must be honored and compensated–and acknowledge community accountability for all, especially those who are vulnerable because of the challenges faced by those born into life in poverty. “If you want peace, work for justice.”–Pope Paul VI. “They” are already here. “They” are our neighbors who work in the service industries and are not paid a living wage. Many complain about the extent to which the housing market in Oxford is influenced by Miami University’s housing policies, and the extent to which maximizing profit influences owners of rental units to let their stock remain vacant if not rented to affluent students, instead of making apartments and houses available to the unhoused. Justice is not being served by these decisions.

We are moving forward to hear and center the stories and experiences of those who are constantly traveling from one temporary shelter to another. We are proposing ways of redistributing resources to meet the unmet needs of ALL of our neighbors. Join us in our development of a homeless network, to work in solidarity with those who don’t choose the honeysuckle thicket, but see no other option, and those who are already doing the good work of justice, of providing housing for ALL.