Nick Jones reports on how a Dominion Housing Group homeless hostel in Oxford is helping to get people off the streets and into the workshop

For a city so closely associated with wealth and privilege, Oxford has a surprisingly serious problem with homelessness. A walk through the tourist heart of the city is evidence enough of this fact. Recent figures suggest that on any given night up to 25 people will be sleeping rough among the dreaming spires, with many more filling the emergency shelters and hostels.

Training in construction skills might not, at first glance, seem to be an obvious solution to this problem, but one homeless hostel believes it could be just the opportunity many of its residents need. The Simon House hostel, owned by Dominion Housing Group, has been helping to tackle Oxford’s homelessness problem for the past 27 years, offering short to medium-term accommodation, a supportive environment and skills training. Now, it has received a £115,000 grant from the ODPM to build a carpentry, plumbing and electrics workshop that will give residents the chance to train for a career in the construction industry.

Jim Smith, deputy manager at Simon House, says: “Working in the homeless field brought to light the fact that there’s a huge potential workforce right here – some of the residents even have trade experience.”

Simon House, Oxford (photo: Moss Architects)
Simon House, Oxford (photo: Moss Architects)

As a qualified bricklayer with many friends still involved in the industry, Smith was well aware of the skills shortage that continues to blight the construction industry, and realised that this problem and the one that he faces every day working at the hostel could offset one another. He says: “Considering all this through, I thought: ‘OK, there’s a diminishing number of people entering trade apprenticeships. And people at the hostel want to work. But how to marry the two?’”

The answer was to apply to the ODPM for the grant to build the workshop, which, combined with the £1.2m major refurbishment grant that Simon House was awarded earlier in the year, will have a massive impact on the 51-bed hostel. Negotiations over the exact design and specification of the workshop are still continuing, but plans for the course are under way. Dominion’s refurbishment contractors, Leadbitter, and other local building companies, may be involved in the running of the workshops, and there will be the possibility of day release at a local college to study for an NVQ in construction.

Smith says: “We’re hoping the course will run for a minimum of 12 weeks, split into blocks of two. It would be a combination of theory and practical work, including painting and decorating, electrics, carpentry, bricklaying, plumbing and so on.

“From those 12 weeks, the students will have gained some valuable skills. They’ll be dipping their toe in the water and can decide from there whether to go on to do an NVQ or a placement through one of the firms.”

Smith is as yet unsure how big the programme will be – “but I’m looking at no more than five to eight people in the workshop at the same time” – and is aware that it is the first initiative of its kind in the area. However, he is sure that even if the residents don’t choose to pursue work in construction, the course will provide them with valuable life skills and help them to get back on their feet. He says: “When the resident eventually moves into their own accommodation, they will have basic training in doing things like changing a tap or fixing a light.”