From arriving in the UK with nowhere to turn, to falling through the cracks and sleeping rough, Byline Times looks at the experiences of migrant people who are homeless

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It’s 11 miles from Earls Court to the Home Office centre in Croydon, but Omar (not his real name), was running out of options. With no money, no home, and his only hope that the Government would let him claim asylum, he had to walk. Twice. 

Omar had been in the UK for a short time before realising he needed to claim asylum. He believed he could present at the centre to claim asylum and begin the process of becoming a refugee. But on both occasions, he was refused entry and he became street homeless. 

He started sleeping rough in a park in West London, before attending a session at West London Welcome, an organisation supporting asylum-seeking people. The workers there called the Home Office’s Asylum Intake Unit, spending hours on the phone to arrange an appointment and Omar was finally able to claim asylum and get accommodation.

His case, warns Leyla Williams, Deputy Director at West London Welcome, demonstrates that some vulnerable people are struggling to access the asylum system, instead ending up on the streets where they are at risk of falling through the cracks. 

“People are at risk of becoming homeless, becoming destitute,” Williams told Byline Times

If homelessness is a risk for people seeking asylum when they arrive in the UK, then the other pressure point is when they get refugee status. While on the one hand this is a moment to celebrate – the “golden ticket”, says Williams – refugees have 28-days to leave their asylum accommodation. Having survived on the £40 per week they receive from the UK Government, with no right to work and often arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they have had no chance to save for a deposit and can end up struggling to find a home. 

While refugees are entitled to council housing, delays and pressures on housing can lead to people being housed in temporary accommodation, or end up homeless. Meanwhile, those who have status to remain in the UK but have no recourse to public funds can struggle to afford housing, as they are denied state support such as Universal Credit. As a result, this group is at a higher risk of homelessness.  

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The Brexit Effect

Denis (not his real name) has spent most of his time homeless since he arrived in the UK in December 2020. He arrived a few days before Britain’s formal exit from the European Union. He has been left in a state of limbo while he waits for his visa to be processed. “My [visa] status is in progress, so if I go to agency, I can’t go to job”, he told Byline Times. Unable to secure a job, he became homeless. “I lost everything”.

Denis is not alone. He is one of more than 3,500 migrant people who are street homeless in London, 64% of whom are from Europe, according to CHAIN data on rough sleeping from 2021. 

They include Andris (not his real name), who came from Latvia around 10 years ago. He has now applied for settled status – the system that allows for EU citizens living in the UK before Brexit to continue residing here. Previous to this, he was on pre-settled status. But as he waits, he has ended up on the streets. 

“I now can’t go to anywhere,” says Andris. “I need to stay in the street and don’t do nothing”. He worked hard all the years he has been in the UK, taking up jobs in building, construction, and catering. But now his uncertain immigration status has left him struggling. 

“I don’t need benefits,” he explains. “I did not come to this country for benefits. I came to work. If you take my passport, how can I go work?” 

Matis (not his real name) moved to the UK from Lithuania years before Brexit, and is still waiting to get settled status. He tells a similar story about difficulty finding work. “No status, no ID. No ID, no job,” he says trying to convey his exasperation with the system. He’s afraid to ask immigration about his visa, fearful they will deport him back to Lithuania where he has no family or friends. 

His fears are the product of the hostile environment which has led even those who are here legally – such as Matis, who has valid pre-settled status – to feel they cannot turn to the Home Office for support. Instead, Denis, Andris and Matis all reached out to charities, as they face a struggle to sort out their visa applications. 

While people with pre-settled or settled-status have the right to work, sometimes employers – intimidated by the hostile environment – stay on the side of caution and refuse migrant job-seekers. Landlords can do the same. The lack of transparency around visa procedures means migrants themselves are often unaware of their rights.

“It is not possible to separate the challenges facing people without a secure immigration status in relation to housing and homelessness from a policy environment deliberately designed to make life unbearable for them,” explains Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Praxis, a charity for migrants and refugees. “Rather than exacerbating the challenges facing people, the hostile environment is the key driver of these challenges”.

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The Undocumented

Some of those most at-risk of street homelessness and poor housing are undocumented migrant people – those who have been refused asylum, who have overstayed, been trafficked, or who did not know they had to apply for EU Settled Status post-Brexit.

The hostile environment introduced a range of policy measures designed to make life in the UK challenging for those without secure immigration status. This included making it illegal to work, cutting people off from using fundamental services including the NHS, and requiring employers, landlords and a host of others to carry out immigration status checks.

The result is people sleeping rough, sofa-surfing, or living in insecure or unregulated housing. Undocumented people are often living in overcrowded or unsuitable homes, but are too afraid to complain to the landlord for fear of being evicted with no recourse to justice – or shopped to immigration. Housing for undocumented people is often linked to work in the informal economy, making complaining or challenging a poor situation even more difficult.

Others rely on the kindness of friends, but depending on loved ones to put a roof over someone’s head is risky. Relationships break down, people fall out, and then it’s back to the streets. It can leave people vulnerable to violence and exploitation, with some women in particular being offered housing in exchange for sex. 

“It’s a tragedy that so many people wait years in limbo to be able to move on, work, rent safely and live stably in our communities,” Poppy Firmin, Senior Immigration case-worker at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, told Byline Times. “If we had simpler and more humane immigration rules, people would be able to make quick and affordable visa applications, and everyone would have the right to rent, as well as the ability to report bad conditions, regardless of status”.

“The net result of these policies is that people without secure immigration status are pushed to the margins of society, forced to work in the black market in order to support themselves, denied access to healthcare, unable to find safe and secure accommodation and unable to access virtually any support services when they hit crisis point,” says Whitaker-Yilmaz. “These factors leave this group at much greater risk of homelessness than the general population”.

Fear of being deported inhibits people from asking for help with applying for leave to remain, or to access housing. But according to conversations with charities supporting migrant people who are homeless or in poor housing, many are, in fact, eligible for a visa status that allows them to remain in the UK. 

“The overwhelming majority of people I worked with in homelessness services do have a route back to papers and permanent residency in the UK, but while they wait for their applications to be processed, hostile government rules like the Right to Rent policy mean they continue to be pushed into squalid housing, or in many cases on to the street,” said Firmin.

“We see previously healthy clients’ mental and physical health deteriorate as a result of a cruel and punitive immigration system that deliberately creates uncertainty, long delays, and provides unlawful and unfathomable decisions,” James Peto, an Immigration Adviser at Praxis working with homeless migrants with complex needs, told Byline Times. “We see clients pass away on the streets for preventable reasons due to lack of support for issues such as suicide and substance abuse”.

A Government spokesperson said: “The Government is committed to ending rough sleeping for good which is why we published a cross-government strategy in September 2022, which will include a review of the impacts of the asylum dispersal system. We have also put strong safeguards in place to ensure vulnerable people can receive support, including migrants who are destitute and have community care needs, or where there is a risk to the wellbeing of a child”.

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