Opinion: Housing Cambridge’s homeless in college rooms could help bridge gap between ‘Town and Gown’

This crisis is an opportunity for the University to make the town versus gown divide a thing of the past, saving face for the University and saving lives

For students making their way through Cambridge city centre, the striking contrast between the imposing architecture of the old, wealthy central colleges and the silhouettes of homeless people in doorways is sadly all too familiar a sight. A hugely vulnerable group in society, rough sleepers are now more at risk than ever in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Following government advice to stay at home is, of course, impossible if you have not got a home to go to.

At the end of March, the UK government sent out letters to local councils urging them to find a way to house rough sleepers during the coronavirus pandemic, and earlier this week it was revealed that Bene’t Street Hostel, an accommodation block of 31 rooms ordinarily used to house 3rd year students at King’s College, had been handed over to the council for this purpose from 23rd April until 31st August. The running costs of the off-site accommodation in the centre of the city are being covered by the Council, which is also in charge of sourcing food for the new residents.

It is undeniable that the homeless population are at a much greater risk than most of catching coronavirus. Rough sleepers are 3 times more likely to have underlying respiratory conditions, and thus are more susceptible to COVID-19. With a nationwide lockdown in place any previous means of making money (for example selling the Big Issue and many gig economy jobs) are no longer viable, making their situation even more desperate.

Making use of some of the university accommodation, in large part abandoned by Cambridge students who were asked to return home on the 18th March, seems to be a no-brainer. There were 23,427 students studying and living in Cambridge for the academic year 2019-20, around 12,000 of whom are undergraduates. This is 20% of the city’s population.  The vast majority of students  normally live in college-owned accommodation either within colleges or externally in buildings such as Bene’t Street Hostel. Whilst many students raise concerns about belongings left behind in their rooms, in the case of Bene’t Street the college assured that students’ items were moved into storage. Just like London’s hotels, student accommodation in Cambridge is not currently being used for its intended purpose. Surely there is no sense in college rooms remaining empty when a far greater need for them exists?

Oxford University’s Pembroke College, University College and Saïd Business School have also provided 36 rooms in total for rough sleepers during the pandemic. Both Oxford and Cambridge are university towns whose buildings and campuses dominate their city centres. The relationship between these wealthy institutions and the wider community may be close geographically but socially and economically the two could not be further apart. ‘Town versus Gown’ encapsulates the historic rift between Oxbridge and the cities that surround them, and despite the best efforts of both student charity campaigns and university-wide measures, still exists. A Guardian article published this January describes Cambridge as the ‘UK’s most unequal city‘ , and the university has been dogged by controversies concerning its responsibility towards the wider and under-privileged communities. As recently as 2019 the university received bad press when it was revealed by Varsity that only eight out of 31 Cambridge colleges paid all their staff the “real living wage”. 

All signs point to this pandemic creating yet more inequality in the UK. With many companies having to furlough or even permanently lay off staff  as a result of  lockdown and the futures of small businesses (including Cambridge’s very own Granny Ma’s) in jeopardy, Cambridge University is in a unique position to act to help those in need. At a time where communities are coming together more than ever before, the University handling the crisis responsibly and reaching out can only boost its public image and community relations.

Of course, the University has its own financial losses to cope with; the Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope stated (in an email sent out on 21st April) that “the COVID-19 pandemic has had an immediate and significant financial impact on the Collegiate University,” announcing a 10-15% fall in the value of endowments alongside other issues affecting the foreseeable future of the university. Questions must also be asked about the fate of rough sleepers after August 31st, when the new occupants of Bene’t Street Hostel are due to move out. Will the council collaborate further with the University to ensure that the city’s most vulnerable are supported after lockdown measures are lifted? The government did pledge to put an end to homelessness and rough sleeping by 2024, although this promise was made in the pre-pandemic era.

The Cambridge student body has not forgotten about those left behind in Cambridge who are suffering the most at the hands of the crisis, with JCRs launching fundraisers for charities such as Jimmy’s and the Cambridgeshire Coronavirus Community Fund (CCCF), and neither should the University.

Providing accommodation for rough sleepers has had an immediate and meaningful effect on Cambridge’s most vulnerable. The University should do all it can to help the most disadvantaged in Cambridge, for the benefit of the city and itself.

The University has been contacted for comment.

Feature Image Credits: philhearing (creative commons license), alexxxis (pixabay license