drawing of home in chalk on wall
BLOG: Home and homelessness in the hostile environment: a view from Sheffield
Holly Rooke (PhD Candidate at the University of Sheffield and member of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) and Aso Mohammadi (Kurdish journalist and migration researcher). As with many […]
Category: Homelessness
Published: 14 May, 2024

Holly Rooke (PhD Candidate at the University of Sheffield and member of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) and Aso Mohammadi (Kurdish journalist and migration researcher).

As with many other parts of the country, Sheffield is experiencing a significant increase in homelessness and rough sleeping, with the council recently reporting that the 2022-23 financial year saw an all time high in the number of people registered as statutory homeless in the city. It is often said – and with good reason – that homelessness can happen to anyone; however, it’s also true that certain groups are disproportionately impacted, and in Sheffield, the evidence shows that Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee (BAMER) communities are overrepresented amongst homeless people, an inequality that is also reflected nationally.

One part of this picture is that in the city – as in the UK more widely – there has been a significant increase in homelessness and rough sleeping amongst newly granted refugees. Nationally, government statistics show that in the second half of last year, rough sleeping amongst people who had left asylum accommodation in the previous 85 days rose nearly 1000%. And whilst rough sleeping is the most visible, dangerous, and humiliating form of homelessness, for every one of those people, there will also be many more sleeping on friends’ sofas, in cars, on the floor of family members’ rooms, or otherwise hidden from view. In Sheffield, local housing charity Nomad, which is the primary source of accommodation for non-priority need homeless people (a category which most adult refugees fall into), had to close their referral system in March after the number of new referrals jumped from around 20-30 a month to over 140, on top of the already 200+ people already on their waiting list.

This rise in homelessness and rough sleeping amongst refugees is not random but the direct result of government decision-making. In particular, the combination of the drive to clear the asylum backlog and the reduction of the time that people have once they receive their status to find alternative accommodation to just seven days (a policy quietly reversed by December) had a significant impact last year. But the problems go much deeper than this.

In the current climate, everyone experiencing homelessness faces significant barriers to resolving their situation: local authorities that are overwhelmed and underfunded, a drastically depleted social housing stock, the cost of living, rising rents, a benefits system that doesn’t meet people’s basic needs… the list goes on. Yet on top of all these factors, refugees also face additional challenges, in particular the fact that they are only given 28 days to leave their asylum accommodation once they receive a positive decision from the Home Office, significantly less than the 56 days deemed necessary to secure housing under the Homelessness Reduction Act, and also less time than it takes to start getting Universal Credit payments on a new claim. In addition, the effective ban on working for asylum seekers means that people have no savings towards the cost of a new tenancy. Add to this a general unfamiliarity with the UK housing system, the presence of language barriers, and the ongoing impacts of the traumatic experiences that led to their successful asylum claim in the first place, and many refugees are left in a nearly impossible situation.

We come at this issue from different places – one of us as someone with direct experience of the asylum and refugee housing system and the insecurity, isolation and fear it can cause, and the other as someone with experience working within and campaigning to change, that system – but we both share a conviction that this disregard for the housing needs of refugees is part of the government’s general hostility towards people seeking sanctuary here in the UK. This hostility doesn’t end even when people receive a positive decision on their claim.

For most people, the experience of being in the asylum system is one of a state of enforced limbo: unable to work, with no control over where you live or how often you are moved, and no sense of how long it will be before a decision is made on your case. After this time – usually years and years – you are expected to start work or make a benefits claim, open a bank account, and find suitable alternative accommodation, all within 28 days. The moment of receiving status should be one of celebration – at least relief – but for many, it quickly becomes one of panic and the fear of homelessness. More and more often, that fear is now becoming a reality.

So, what could be done differently? There is a clear argument – one we both support – to say that by virtue of the fact that someone has been granted refugee status, they have had significant traumatic experiences that make them vulnerable and should, therefore, fall into the ‘priority need’ category and get additional support from local authorities, including emergency accommodation to prevent rough sleeping. Sadly, this seems unlikely to happen soon. However, there are other – more minor – policy shifts that would go some way towards addressing the current situation, such as increasing the ‘move-on’ period from 28 days to 56 to bring it in line with the Homelessness Reduction Act or ensuring that large numbers of evictions from Home Office accommodation are staggered to give local authorities and charities a fighting chance to support people to find alternative accommodation.

Being a refugee means the total loss of everything you have known until that point: family, friends, language, career, financial security, and community. Starting again will always be difficult, and whilst having somewhere to call home might only be the first step, it’s a big one. If we want new refugees to be welcomed in our cities and given a chance to rebuild their lives – as the government claims it does – we desperately need policies that make it as easy as possible to transition from asylum accommodation into permanent housing. Without a change to the current system, a continuing rise in homelessness seems depressingly inevitable.

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