PUP Volunteerism Highlight: The Oxford Hot Water Bottle Project

Many of us in the #ReadUP world are inspired by the university press mission to contribute to society in the form of knowledge and ideas. But the ethos is not bound to the pages of a book; many of our staff and peers are also invested in community development and engagement. To support these commitments, and encourage community building within and far beyond our publishing house, we have formed a Community Building Committee, which includes as one of its pillars a volunteer committee. Over the last year, PUP staff have convened colleagues across departments and the globe to help serve meals at community kitchens, collect donations for many local organizations, rebuild trails in local preserves, send books to incarcerated readers, rebuild a library collection destroyed by fire in Rio, and as this blog post by senior publicist Katie Lewis shares, reached out to the homeless population in Oxford. The enthusiasms we bring to all of our collaborations, from books to community building events, enliven every chapter of our collective publishing narrative.

–Christie Henry, Director

Oxford is one of the UK’s most affluent cities, and the least affordable.

Oxford, the closest city to Princeton University Press’s European office, is a beautiful, historic centre of academia, culture, architecture and history. One cannot help marvelling at its beauty and noticing the affluence of the university colleges, which make up a large part of the town centre. But there is another side to Oxford that is just as visible, even if it does not make it into the guide books.  

Homelessness is a global problem, but it is particularly acute in Oxford. According to Homeless Oxfordshire, a charity that provides shelter, safety, hot meals and basic facilities for about 550 homeless people in the city and surrounding areas, the number of rough sleepers in Oxford has increased by 175% since 2012. There has also been a spike in deaths among homeless people in Oxford this winter, as reported by The Guardian.

The high numbers of rough sleepers in Oxford may be due the affluence of the city and the fact that many of its inhabitants, students and tourists can spare a little change. Rough sleepers from other parts of the country are known to make their way to Oxford in the hope of receiving more casual financial help (change on the streets) than they might in their home towns.

Oxford is also one of the most economically uneven cities in the UK: an area called Blackbird Leys is one of the most socioeconomically deprived areas in the country, despite being only a couple of miles from the grandeur of the world-class university. The economic situation there may go some way to explaining why Oxford’s homelessness problem is so severe.

Homelessness is also perhaps particularly prevalent in Oxford due to the high cost of housing – Oxford has been widely held as the UK’s least affordable city since at least 2014. According to Homeless Oxfordshire, the average Oxford house price of £491,900 is around 16 times the average yearly household income of £29,400, and the rental market reflects this, with many rented rooms just as expensive as those in London, without the artificially boosted salaries enjoyed in the capital.  

I started handing out hot water bottles to Oxford’s rough sleepers in January 2018 when it occurred to me how horrible it would be to be out in the snow without the cosy hot water bottle that I enjoy on my lap in the Princeton office during the colder months. I started a JustGiving page and with the help of a friend, handed out 50 hot water bottles over the next couple of weeks.

Handing out hot water bottles in the snow.

This year, I was thrilled when Princeton University Press decided to make the “Oxford Hot Water Bottle Project” one of the beneficiaries of its volunteering programme. PUP kindly funded the purchase of 360 hot water bottles, and my colleague Keira Andrews and I have been handing out freshly-filled hot water bottles to chilly Oxford citizens on particularly icy evenings this winter.

Whenever the temperature reaches freezing or below, the council actions its Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP), meaning that shelters open their doors to anybody, not just those with a link to Oxford. The shelters’ aim during this time is to get as many people out of the cold as possible. However, there are lots of people who, for various reasons, prefer not to go to shelters even in sub-zero temperatures, and those are the people that we aim to help.

Rough sleepers can refill their hot water bottles at The Handle Bar, a wonderful bicycle-themed café on St Michael’s Street in Oxford. As well as serving utterly fantastic food in a lovely environment, they have also gracefully put up with filling dozens of hot water bottles for us so far, and have agreed to refill bottles for anyone who asks. The Handle Bar and its staff are an invaluable resource to us, and we are very grateful.

It is always very moving and humbling to spend a few hours connecting with people on the streets and trying to fathom what it must be like to feel cold for weeks and weeks on end. Hopefully, Princeton University Press’s partnership with The Handle Bar will bring relief and the promise of slightly more comfortable nights out in the cold to growing numbers of people.

–Katie Lewis, Senior Publicist, European Office