It is not just the government’s changing stance on asylum seekers that is leaving councils worried about dealing with a homelessness crisis – a shift on how Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban are being treated is adding fuel to the fire too.
In March, veterans minister Johnny Mercer said the government would end the use of bridging hotels for Afghans resettled through government schemes, claiming they cost the taxpayer £1m a day. He said the use of hotels had prevented Afghans from “properly putting down roots”.
Around 8,000 people remained in hotels at that time, after being evacuated from Afghanistan as part of Operation Warm Welcome in 2021. It meant many of those who risked their lives for the UK government and British Army in Afghanistan – working as interpreters, soldiers or in other roles – and their families were being issued eviction notices at the end of April, to be out by the end of the summer.
As of September, Mercer said 85% of those in bridging accommodation had been helped into homes or other temporary accommodation. But recently there has also been a partial U-turn on the policy, with 3,200 Afghan refugees put up in hotels in Pakistan while waiting for UK visas set to be moved to bridging accommodation in the UK over safety fears.
A government spokesperson told The Big Issue £285m of new funding was being used to speed up their resettlement into permanent accommodation, with councils using the cash to provide deposits, furniture, rental top-ups and rent advances.
Despite the support, the Local Government Association (LGA) revealed 1,000 Afghans remain in hotels and that the Home Office has given councils a deadline of 15 December to move on the remaining families. The LGA has warned that the government risks passing the buck on to local authorities already at breaking point due to the housing crisis.
The number of households in temporary accommodation in England is already at a record high with councils collectively shelling out £1.74 billion a year on hotels, B&Bs and other makeshift homes. More than 100 councils met at an emergency summit on 31 October, hosted by Eastbourne Borough Council and the District Councils’ Network, amid fears that temporary accommodation bills could push more local authorities into insolvency.
LGA chair Shaun Davies said: “It is wrong that some families had to leave Home Office-funded hotels only to then end up having to move into temporary accommodation. We are pleased at the willingness of the government to work closely with the LGA on these issues but it has more to do to ensure a smooth transition for Afghan families which doesn’t simply pass on the costs and responsibilities from government to councils.”
The situation also risks undermining the government’s big talk on tackling homelessness. It’s widely thought that the government is on track to miss its 2019 Conservative manifesto promise to end rough sleeping by December next year.
But Mercer has made bigger bets. He has promised to end veteran rough sleeping by the end of this year and launched Op Fortitude – including a veterans homelessness hotline – to do it. The veteran-turned-politician has also said he will personally investigate any reports of Afghan families sleeping rough in the country as a result of being evicted from hotels. “I will have failed if any Afghans end up rough sleeping,” he told Mail Online.
The numbers suggest Mercer might be busy.
Between 1 July and 31 August, 476 Afghan households have needed support from councils because they are either homeless or at risk, according to government figures.
The latest London Chain figures show that the number of Afghans sleeping rough in London has more than doubled from 18 people spotted in January to March to 41 between July and September.
The stats also show 92 people with armed forces experience who originated from outside the UK were sleeping rough in the English capital over the last three months.
It is unclear how many of these veterans – if any – are from Afghanistan or whether the rise in rough sleeping is due to the upheaval from hotels or due to increased arrivals from small boats.
Three times as many Afghans claimed asylum than were resettled in the UK in the 18 months between January 2022 and June this year.
The LGA has warned it might already be the case that some families have fallen into rough sleeping.
If that’s the case, not only will the government have failed to live up to its word on tackling homelessness, ministers will also have failed veterans who risked it all to protect the UK.
Davies said: “There needs to be a joint and funded approach nationally, regionally and locally to manage the move on from asylum accommodation and avoid risks of destitution and street homelessness throughout the winter.”