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Can rough sleeping be ended without ending the hostile environment?

The Everyone In scheme has brought more than 37,000 people off the streets during the pandemic. Now the task is to prevent them from returning. One year on, The Big Issue asks if the UK Government’s stance on immigration is at odds with its goal of ending rough sleeping
Can rough sleeping be ended while the UK pursues its hostile environment strategy? Image credit: Piqsels

Imagine a world where no one has to sleep rough on Britain’s streets. In the last year the country has been closer than ever to that reality.

The Everyone In scheme has protected more than 37,000 rough sleepers and vulnerable people throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The global health crisis sparking the political will to tackle a longer-standing one: homelessness.

That action has got the Westminster Government closer than even it thought possible to reaching its goal of ending rough sleeping for good by 2024.

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But the key word is “everyone”. Under normal circumstances, not everyone living in the UK is entitled to state support. The ‘hostile environment’ Home Office policy of no recourse to public funds means people who have pending asylum claims and are “subject to immigration control” cannot work or claim state benefits.

In the Covid-19 health emergency, it has been left to the councils’ discretion on whether to put people living under this condition into hotels and emergency accommodation alongside British rough sleepers.

While then-Rough Sleeping Minister Luke Hall reiterated that the condition still applied last summer, councils’ legal right to house was only cleared up earlier this month following a landmark High Court ruling in Brighton.

The majority of councils have opted to include people living under no recourse to public funds but just how many is unclear. The cross-party Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy (RAMP) Project is in the process of producing a national count through a series of Freedom of Information requests.

Labour MP Neil Coyle, who is one of the politicians signed up to the project, told The Big Issue: “The data available shows that, up until now, the precise responsibilities of local councils through ‘Everyone In’ have not been completely clear. Data is often hard to obtain due to councils collecting data in different ways. Dedicated NRPF teams might be a way forward for councils to be able to effectively work with people who are subject to NRPF.”

While the national figures may still be unclear, one thing can be certain: the number of people requiring support has been an eye-opener for councils.

That was the case for Southwark Council in south London. The local authority has housed more than 200 people during the pandemic – far in excess of the 44 people found to be rough sleeping in the borough in 2019’s official count. This tallies with the national picture. The Public Accounts Committee said last week the numbers helped through Everyone In are nine times the official rough sleeping figures.

In Southwark, 70 people were living under no recourse to public funds. This left the council footing the bill to house them and the problem of how to move them on to permanent accommodation once the pandemic ends. With no right to work or claim benefits, how can they be expected to hold down a tenancy?

Facing the prospect of dumping people back out on the streets, the council teamed up with Southwark Law Centre (SLC) to fast-track immigration cases as a solution.

SLC Immigration lawyer Van Ferguson told The Big Issue he was “surprised” at how many viable cases he encountered, recording 44 outcomes so far. 

Bakary, 68, was one of those outcomes. The Gambian national was studying in Ghana before he came over to the UK in 1980 with the hope of picking up work as a fruit picker. 

After a couple of summers he decided to stay and studied human resources at university. In recent times Bakary had been teaching French to pay for his accommodation.

Covid-19 put him on the council’s radar and he was protected through the Everyone In scheme in April 2020 after being illegally evicted from his rented property in the early days of the pandemic. 

But without the global health crisis, Bakary would likely never have known he had actually been granted indefinite leave to remain back in 2003, meaning he was entitled to support the entire time. He was never told.

He told The Big Issue: “I feel bitter. Absolutely bitter. My mother died and I couldn’t go home to pay respects to her at the funeral. My elder brother died too and I couldn’t go. I knew I wouldn’t be able to come down. I had spent all the time in the country, why would I risk wasting it?

I’ve been homeless here and there and I’ve lost a lot of things. My certificates, my documents – when you do not have a secure accommodation it is difficult to keep hold of things.

“I feel bitter. I could have helped my family – I am the eldest now – but I am here undocumented. “

While Everyone In has changed many lives, it has not come without considerable cost.

The Westminster Government has thrown a considerable sum of money at ending homelessness. A total of £750m will be spent in 2021, chiefly on providing housing and support as people protected in hotels move on to permanent homes. Just last week Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick outlined the next £212m step in the Rough Sleeping Accommodation Programme.

But that hasn’t stopped cash-strapped councils facing large overspends – Coyle told The Big Issue: “The policies ruin efforts to contain Covid and are ruining council budgets.”

Helen Dennis, Southwark Council’s cabinet member for social support and homelessness agreed. She said: “The whole homelessness area has been the biggest pressure on council budgets.  

“We’re quite worried about the service, there is a massive pressure and demand. Everyone has tried to take a generous approach when it comes to no recourse, we tried to take the Government at its word when they said everyone. We brought everyone in and yet further down the line now the communications fudged that issue and gave no clarity.

“Another way they could have dealt with this and –  I think it could have been right from a public health perspective – would have been to have suspended the no recourse to public funds condition through the course of the pandemic. That would have been easiest thing to do.”

It’s a similar story elsewhere across England. Homelessness charities have called for the no recourse to public funds condition to be suspended throughout the pandemic but so too have council leaders.

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees told The Big Issue that locally £21,000 a week is being spent on providing emergency accommodation to people living under the condition – and Covid-19 has underlined why no one should slip through the net.

“The Covid pandemic has really brought home that we all need access to a basic safety net,” said Rees. “In Bristol we’ve been proud to accommodate people of every background under the Everyone In Scheme. But the No Recourse to Public Funds condition makes that job much harder than it needs to be.

“At the local level we can see the enormous human and financial cost of NRPF – what we need is for national government to recognise this and to change the system so that everybody has access to the basic safety net we all rely on.”

In Oxfordshire, the realisation that it will take more than the local authority to end homelessness has seen the charity and voluntary sectors step up to launch a Housing First project.

The Oxfordshire Homelessness Movement brings together the council, the police, local charities and voluntary groups from across the region to provide a community led solution. 

In the words of Neil Preddy, Oxfordshire Homelessness Movement vice-chair, said: “The movement came out of the council realising they couldn’t solve rough sleeping in the face of rising numbers in recent years.

“The council feel like they are on pretty sound ground to look after people under no recourse through Covid but don’t feel anything like as confident that they will get the money or be clear to support them afterwards. That’s a gap.

“With this project we are trying to do the very best for these people that we can and get as close as we can to what the council would do with their strategy if they had the funding.”

The movement is raising funds to launch a Housing First project to help the council find homes for people who have no recourse to public funds. Starting with six people, the alliance is fundraising to house and support the other 14.

While the UK Government’s no recourse public funds policy remains in place, these are the lengths which homelessness groups and local authorities are going to in order to prevent all the good work of Everyone In from going to waste.

But even with these efforts there remains a risk that some will return to the streets, making the governmental goal of ending rough sleeping by 2024 a difficult task to achieve.

However, in December last year, Home Office rules changed to mean rough sleeping is considered a basis for refusal or cancellation of permission to stay in the country.

Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel revealed her own changes to the asylum process this week with how someone arrives in the UK now considered when deciding whether to grant asylum. 

One thing is for sure though: leaving people to fail with no access to state funds risks being not only a humanitarian failure but a financial one too, as Preddy explained.

“There’s a myth that it’s free to leave people like this,” added Preddy. “It’s not because they consume services, they get sick, they have contact with the criminal justice system. There are resources that are consumed in all kinds of ways where if people living under the condition were sorted out quickly they could be working, paying tax and contributing.”

Contributing is exactly what Bakary wants to do and the support he has received during the pandemic has strengthened his resolve – if he is given the chance.

“Up until this moment I have not received a penny from the state and I need help,” added Bakary.  “The only comfort I have is to watch some TV and read books but it is not enough. 

“I want to stay in this country. I want to help. I want to see what I can do for society. Some people in this pandemic have been very helpful and I want to give back – that’s what I want to do for society.”