Social Justice

'The trauma is absolutely huge': Refugee homelessness crisis grips Sheffield

Asylum seekers are waiting years for decisions. Within days, they're on the streets

Sheffield refugee

Staff and volunteers at SPRING. Image: City of Sanctuary Sheffield

“The trauma is absolutely huge. People shiver as they are sitting in front of us. They burst into tears and cry,” Blessan Babu said. “Especially for women on the street in a city they’re familiar with as a safe place.”

Since asylum hotel evictions resumed on 3 January, this has been the daily reality for Babu and his team at SPRING, Sheffield Project for Refugee Integration & Growth.

In one case, a woman ended up sleeping in the park after being granted refugee status. In another, a man waiting 22 years for a Home Office decision found himself on the streets within days. Within a week of evictions starting after a Christmas pause from the Home Office, SPRING has seen 16-20 freshly kicked out, with 95% of those homeless. The only hope of avoiding the streets is if you are pregnant or have a child – and so fall under “priority need”.

Refugees, newly given leave to remain in the UK after often harrowing experiences, are going “from burning bush to a flaming oil situation”, Babu said.

“This is something sudden, they have never faced this before. This is not a gradual transition to a homeless situation. Facing this challenge is really really difficult for them,” said Babu.

The clothes bank at SPRING. Image: Gerard Liston

As Rishi Sunak promised to clear the legacy asylum backlog by the end of 2023, the Home Office went into overdrive. It began making tens of thousands of decisions, resulting in unprecedented numbers being evicted from asylum hotels. At the same time, in August it made a change which in practice reduced the time granted to those evicted to find somewhere to live.

The result was mass homelessness, with thousands having nowhere to go but the streets. Two U-turns followed, revealed by The Big Issue. First, it increased the time granted to newly-recognised refugees before eviction, and secondly paused evictions during extreme cold weather and over Christmas.

Data obtained by The Big Issue found the number of refugees evicted into homelessness doubled in August, when the Home Office made its changes, from 21 in July 2023 to 40 in August, and a further 43 in September.

Evictions began again on 3 January and in Sheffield the impact is being felt. Predicting the next few weeks, he said: “Honestly, it is going to be a continuation of the chaos.”

A staff member at SPRING talks to service users. Image: Gerard Liston

Along with homelessness, Babu described the difficulties faced by evicted refugees not afforded the time to get proper support. 

“The other challenge we are facing is exploitation into modern slavery, human trafficking,” he said.

“This is pushing and forcing people into exploitation when they are supposed to be supported by the statutory authority.”

Local government minister Michael Gove admitted before Christmas that the costs of the crisis are being “shunted” onto city, county, and town administrations. As councils around the country declare bankruptcy, services are withdrawn. Sheffield City Council is being strict with its criteria because of bankruptcy fears, Babu said, and only offering homelessness support to people who qualify for “priority” need.

Despite the Home Office changing course, Babu believes the damage has been done: “Even if they apologise, it won’t make any difference to the people who’ve become homeless in the country.”

The crisis, however, brings an opportunity for lasting change. “We are using this epic, chaotic time for bringing something long term sustainable solution from this crisis,” said Babu.

He is trying to get Homewards, Prince William’s flagship scheme to end homelessness, involved. Sheffield is one of the cities chosen to be part of the heir’s £3m project.

Councillor Douglas Johnson, chair of Sheffield City Council’s housing committee, told The Big Issue: “As we have previously stated Sheffield City Council has a track record, as a City of Sanctuary, in supporting individuals coming to the United Kingdom seeking asylum.

“We work in partnership with other local authorities and organisations in the region with the aim of placing individuals in the right accommodation. As a City of Sanctuary we pride ourselves on our commitment to providing a safe space whenever possible and highlighting the welcoming and friendly nature of our city.

“We adhere to the same laws as every local authority in the country. This includes those around a ‘priority need’ for temporary or emergency housing. We also provide advice on housing options to anyone in the city who is in urgent need of support to prevent homelessness. We also have a rough sleeper service for anyone who is at risk of rough sleeping. This is a difficult time for all public serving bodies in terms of budgets and a lack of suitable affordable housing. All of our services – including housing – feel those pressures.

“We will continue to do all we can to provide sufficient, safe housing for all who need it within Sheffield.”

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