Myrto and I have been volunteering at the Hackney Migrant Centre (HMC) since March 2012. The HMC is based in Stoke Newington and runs a weekly drop-in session every Wednesday from 12-3.30pm for asylum seekers, refugees and recent migrants. In additionto a warm welcome and a hot nutritious meal, the centre provides our visitors with free professional advice and support on immigration, welfare and housing matters.
Each week we receive around 50 visitors seeking assistance with various difficulties. In recent months there has been a noticeable increase in the number of visitors experiencing or on the brink of homelessness. Despite the Centre’s best efforts we are met with many unresolvable cases. Many are unable to get meaningful support from their local council as they don’t meet the strict priority-need criteria and the few homelessness sector services available to migrants are struggling to cope with the huge demand.
[h4]Becoming homeless after 20 years of constant employment in the UK[/h4]
Rachid has been homeless for over a year. Of Algerian nationality, he arrived in 1991 on a six month tourist visa with no clear intention to stay. Yet it wasn’t long before he was offered a job in the kitchen of a pizzeria. “That time in the 90s when I first came, the area where I was, it was a bit like a comfy armchair, there wasn’t too much pressure…jobs were available, unlike today”. He obtained a legitimate emergency National Insurance number that after some time automatically turned into a standard NI number. “My status was never an issue because I had an NI number… the years flew by but it started to bother me as I wanted to have things in order”. Rachid continued to work and pay taxes for twenty years. During this long period the only time his immigration status posed a problem was when he tried to register with a GP and was expected to show a passport. In 2011 Rachid lost his job, further distressed by his lack of status he decided to go to the local police station and declare himself as an overstayer to the UKBA: “I wanted to live differently. I wanted to live me, my life”.
Throughout his time in the UK, Rachid had been living in private rented accommodation at a number of locations, initially in Essex and then London, both shared and single occupancy. When he lost his job, he could no longer afford the rent; this is when his housing ordeal began. After one night spent roaming the streets, an acquaintance took him in on the condition that in return Rachid would help with some basic care duties. This arrangement lasted for a few weeks, at which point he found himself back on the street sleeping in a Camden churchyard. He was approached by a member of the Camden Outreach Team but was told: “There’s not much I can do for you. First you have to sort out your case”. Rachid was signposted to a day centre and was given advice about night shelters that cater for people with no recourse to public funds.
In London there are very few shelters that cater for homeless overstayers. Most tend to be run by community groups that rely solely on charitable donations and can therefore only take residents for limited periods of time. Rachid spent several months in two of these shelters with a long period of street homelessness in between. Now that his options are exhausted, Rachid is back sleeping in the same churchyard. Reflecting on his decision to declare himself to the UKBA and renounce his ability to support himself: “If I had thought about it, I never would have done it…sleeping rough on the street is a daily struggle…it often feels like there is no way out.”
[h4]Living on the brink of homelessness[/h4]
Terell first visited the centre last year for immigration advice, but has been returning in recent weeks for assistance with a pressing housing problem. He arrived in the UK in 2008 to study at university and held a 3 year international student visa, after a few years he applied for asylum and was swiftly granted refugee status. Terell was initially living in student halls of residence and then in private shared accommodation. He now rents out the living room in an overcrowded 4 bedroomed flat. Since being granted asylum he has run into financial difficulties as his parents will no longer support him. As a refugee he is entitled to Job Seekers Allowance and Housing Benefit, though as is often the case his current landlord is reluctant to accept tenants in receipt of benefits. Terell has been given notice to leave by the end of June, giving him a week to find affordable accommodation. “I am in limbo at the moment and I don’t know what to do”. The only viable option seems to be applying for a place in supported accommodation through the charity YMCA and even this is proving challenging because Terell needs a letter of recommendation from his local council to register. Despite Terell’s best efforts, his casewoker at the council will not provide him with this document and currently his case is unresolved and he is at serious risk of homelessness.
The Department for Communities and Local Government figures released this month confirm that the housing situation has gotten worse over the 2011/12 financial year with homelessness increasing by 14%. As a vulnerable group, migrants are being hard hit by the radical reforms, weakening of welfare protections and the lack of decent, affordable and social homes.
The help available if you find yourself facing or experiencing homelessness is dependent upon a number of factors. Your immigration status, access to benefits, borough connection and length of homelessness can all be taken into consideration by service providers. At the HMC we use the above criteria to determine which services the individual visitor is able to access using a simple flow diagram.
[h5]Here are some useful links to organisations and charities striving to limit the rising problem of homelessness.[/h5]