In a little house in Jericho, as Tuesday night grew frosty and dark, an idyllic image reminiscent of Santa’s workshop began to unfold.
Under the cheap light fixtures guaranteed with student accommodation the rugby ‘elves’ worked as cogs of a single machine; a Nutella-spreading, coffee-pouring, philanthropic machine.
When invited by the Saint’s Captain Jonathan Inglis to come along to this year’s rugby initiations, I was expecting to gather some pretty juicy and controversial gossip on what could resurface in years to follow as the next ‘pig-gate’. Instead, I walked into a room of St Anne’s and St John’s boys cram-packing sports bags full of sandwiches and crisp packets in preparation for feeding the homeless.
Granted, this good-natured charity work was not without Shakira and Cheryl Cole in skimpy clothing hanging on the surrounding walls and a couple of suction-cup dildos being lobbed around the kitchen.
Armed with disposable cups and sausage rolls (rather than bottles of vod and six packs of Carlsberg) the team took to the streets. The ground rules were simple: no waking up anyone sleeping, offer all the food available and don’t go up to people in groups bigger than three or four. Be mindful, be sensitive. The boys were each dedicated to the late, chilly night ahead and eventually the freshers took it upon themselves to sprint down side streets to try and locate those in need.
Coinciding with the ‘good-lad’ workshops of the previous year, the Saints Committee had been spitballing ideas on how to improve initiations for the past few months. Aside from the implicit charitable element of the evening, the Committee wanted a way to encourage team bonding. In light of recent stories surrounding societies such as The Bullingdon Club, the idea was for these teammates to be proud of their involvement in the rugby team.
So, when a passer-by questioned the boys “can’t you see how transparent what you’re doing is?” they could respond with a resounding ‘yes’, absent of shame. Of course it looks as though the team are simply doing this to move their reputation away from the ‘lad’ stigma, but isn’t that half the point?
Not one member of the team was deluded into thinking that giving a man a sandwich and a hot coffee was going to change his life, but what the evening did seek to do was to combine a humanitarian deed with a chance to create a team culture the members could look back fondly on.
Even at this point in the night, however, I wasn’t sure if I was really convinced that the boys would much rather be traipsing around in the cold handing out food than downing pints for right-of-passage. But after encountering a verbal onslaught from a local business owner, I was persuaded otherwise. Yelling at the team that they were ‘cocky uni students’ who were ‘self satisfying’ and ‘wanking all over the pavement’, the crux of his argument lay in the idea that the boys were encouraging the homeless by feeding them. Ummm, what?
Of course, a homeless person sitting outside of your shop may detract from business. Families may be stopped from going inside as a result of the man asking for cash in the entrance. The business owner stated that the homeless community leave trash and faeces behind for the shopkeeper to clean. But then again, what other choice do the homeless of Oxford really have?
Speaking to several homeless people on Cornmarket, the obvious question for all of us was why did they not make use of the homeless shelter just down the road?
“It’s dirty. I’d rather be in my encampment.”
“I may be homeless but I’m not a drug addict and a sex offender like the people in there.”
Obviously, you cannot lump the entirety of residents in the homeless shelter into the categories of ‘sex-offenders’ or criminals, but what was evident was the reputation of the shelter with the rest of the homeless community. The men complained of the poor quality of food and conditions, and there was a clear resentment of individuals taking advantage of the homeless shelter’s facilities when they did not necessarily need it.
What exposed itself as an even bigger issue for the homeless on the street was the aspect of dehumanisation. One of the men recounted a night last week where a man and woman on Cornmarket were surrounded by a group of young people hurling abuse. Onlookers stood useless in the face of risking their own safety if they tried to stop the scene. Apparently they regularly were treated like ‘savages’.
What was unique about this particular man, however, was that he wanted to live on the streets. It was a life he chose. “I’ve tried living in a house. It’s not for me.” 22 years he had been homeless, living in encampments and moving on every few days once being evicted by the Council or landowner. He wasn’t upset or sad about being on the streets, stating with a borderline-smug grin “my house is bigger than your house.”
It was around midnight that the boys began to head home. The latter part of the night had taken a more pensive turn as the team absorbed what they had experienced. Passing by the bus shelter/smoking area of Lola Lo’s, the drunken stumbling students were like a parallel universe for how the team’s night could have been spent. For all of the Saints, the boozing and cigarette smoking of a student night couldn’t have been less appealing at that moment.
It would be unrealistic to see these boys as paragons of virtue or, indeed, ‘Saints’. They get drunk and dick about like the majority of university students. But whether a publicity stunt or a genuine act of philanthropy, the initiations had been a success. The Saints rugby team was a name to be proud of in the eyes of the freshers, and kindness towards people in need had been accomplished.