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Seeing 'Below the Spires'

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

Uncomfortable Oxford explores problematic and/or controversial legacies of the past in our contemporary lived environment. However, UnOx is also a project that engages with the present. One of the present day aspects of Oxford’s streets that is visible to those who walk them is the prominent presence of homelessness and rough sleeping.

One way to reframe this conversation is through shifting the focus upside down. Last week, we visited a photo exhibition organised by the charity Homeless Oxfordshire, hosted by the Jam Factory (in the Foundry Room). The exhibition is titled ‘Below the Spires’ and provides a powerful view of the city through the eyes of those who sleep its streets. It is composed of photos taken by disposable cameras taken by the clients of the charity. The arrangement of the photographs is explicitly immersive: to properly engage with the images, the viewer must go down to the ground level and put themselves in the position of those who took the photographs.

Recurring themes include:

  • Symbols of institutions, such as ambulances, police cars etc.

  • Signs that tell you what you should or should not do.

  • Animals, and prominently dogs, who are the companions of many rough sleepers.

Administrators of the charity, who helped set up the exhibition, were present on the day we dropped by. When asked about their daily activities and struggles, the response was:

“The hardest part is to get someone to walk through the door.”

At the hostel, HO provides to anyone who walks in access to the showers, two hot meals, free toiletries, clean clothes and access to a phone and internet. They are the largest provider of accommodation across Oxfordshire, housing over 200 people a night, on in only 7% in England providing emergency and specialist services. They are also the only hostel in the area that accepts individuals in all states of distress, including addiction.

Homelessness in Oxford has increased by 175% since 2012, and in the city, the average house price is around 16 times the average yearly household income. Homelessness is visible on the streets, but it can also be an invisible phenomenon that we tend to overlook.

Homelessness deskills and isolates yet the creativity, innovation and resilience people use every day to survive is extraordinary, and 'Below the Spires' contributes to not only raise awareness of homelessness, but also to encourage the public to look past the stereotypes.

The exhibition will run until Thursday, 28th of February.

If you wish to learn more about Homeless Oxfordshire and how to volunteer, please visit their website:

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