Using arts venues to provide training for the homeless in Oxford

Oxford’s Old Fire Station is the base for an innovative social enterprise providing training for homeless people within a popular public arts venue. This case study forms part of the Value of culture - learning and development section of our online Culture Hub.

The centre opened in 2011 as a café, theatre, art shop, exhibition space and dance class venue. It provides training and volunteering opportunities for homeless people in collaboration with the charity Crisis, with the aim of building their confidence and skills. The idea was generated jointly by Crisis and Oxford City Council. The council invested £4 million to redevelop the building and it set up a charity, Arts at the Old Fire Station (AOFS), to run the venue. The council provides around £32,000 a year from its culture budget along with rent subsidy.

The project has strong political support. AOFS survived its first two years thanks to a social investment loan from the Charities Aid Foundation, underwritten by the council, and rigorous business development. Since then, it has attracted investment from Arts Council England and a range of trusts and foundations.

Its mission is to provide:

  • great art for the public which takes a risk, asks questions and entertains
  • professional development of local artists through advice, subsidy, networks and promotion
  • building the confidence and skills of homeless people
  • a new kind of shared public space which helps to break down barriers in the community.

Impact of the project

The Old Fire Station is a popular and vibrant public space. In 2015 it hosted 230 different shows across diverse art forms, selling 9,378 tickets. Homeless people can work for AOFS over a 10-week period for two sessions per week, gaining experience in administration, technical theatre skills or customer services. Over the last three years, 31 people have taken part. One recent trainee went on to volunteer as assistant stage manager for a theatre production and is now applying for paid jobs at local theatres. Another is now employed as a shop assistant in the venue’s shop. 

AOFS also supports people to become front-of-house volunteers, enabling them to be part of a team and see shows for free. In 2015, 31 per cent of the volunteers were Crisis members and 173 complimentary theatre tickets were taken up.

AOFS relies on partnerships – primarily with Crisis and Oxford City Council but also with cultural organisations, universities, the voluntary sector and businesses. In the longer term, using a mainstream public setting rather than a segregated specialist setting could prove less expensive and more effective. As a small new venture dedicated to delivery, AOFS is building a case for more upstream funding to help vulnerable people engage in mainstream activity and reduce the need for specialist targeted services down the line.

Looking to the future

The partners are seeing more people become homeless due to funding cuts and changes to the welfare system. Over the coming years AOFS will enhance its engagement of homeless people through a new participation coordinator (with Big Lottery funding). It will develop evaluation methodology using storytelling to evidence impact and will look for ways to share its learning.

Councillor Bob Price, Leader of Oxford City Council, said:

When considering developing services for homeless people and/or creating public space for culture or sport, other councils could look at how they can bring these seemingly unconnected activities together under one roof to support each other’s mission.

Key learning points

  • The project’s strengths include its focus on commercial business development, its ability to attract partners with resources/expertise and a strong, inclusive vision.
  • Effective fundraising capacity is critical.  
  • The work is highly replicable, but cohabiting with an experienced homelessness charity gives AOFS a distinct advantage over most cultural organisations.

For further information contact Peter McQuitty, Corporate Lead – Culture & the Arts, Oxford City Council: [email protected] or Jeremy Spafford, Director, AOFS: [email protected]


This case study has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England