NEWS & BLOG
21 November, 2023 - By Leyla Williams and Margie Cheesman
The New Refugee Homeless Crisis
At West London Welcome our advice team are facing the most difficult casework crisis we have ever had at our centre – the new refugee homelessness crisis.
The government is currently trying to fulfill their pledge to clear their backlog of unprocessed asylum decisions by the end of this year, meaning that hundreds of people living in asylum accommodation in West London are suddenly being granted refugee status.
Normally, being granted refugee status would be cause for celebration, but the sheer numbers of people being granted refugee status across the UK – projected by the Red Cross to be 50,000 people by the end of the year – mean that councils and small frontline NGOs like us are overwhelmed with requests for housing support. We are seeing around five new positive asylum decisions a week at our centre alone.
Refugees rarely have the connections or money to organise a room for themselves after being suddenly evicted from their asylum accommodation. With no savings since they are banned from working or claiming benefits while seeking asylum, they are then given just 28 days’ notice to leave their asylum accommodation and find themselves a job or benefits to pay the rent, and find somewhere else to live. To make matters even more difficult, people have been facing even shorter eviction notice periods, with some facing just seven days to move out. Most landlords don’t want to rent to people living on housing benefit, making it incredibly difficult for people to find rooms in the private rented sector. As we told the Guardian, it is no surprise that the country is seeing a chaotic crisis of new refugees pitching tents outside their asylum hotels, because they have nowhere else to go.
How our advice team are supporting our community
Our indefatigable advice team is working 24/7 to ensure people are housed through a range of solutions, from arranging councils to house them to finding them rooms in YMCAs or hosts or landlords within our community willing to help. We work closely with our friends at Refugees at Home to get people hosted when we need to. And of course, we provide lots of emotional support along the way. Against the odds and through sheer hard work, we have managed to ensure all of the 45 people within our community recently granted refugee status have avoided homelessness and been safely housed.
We and other refugee NGOs are calling on the government to financially support local authorities who are overwhelmed with homelessness cases, which is having a powerful knock-on effect on frontline NGOs like us. We also call on the government to immediately extend the eviction notice period from 28 days to 56 days to allow more time for newly recognised refugees to find housing, employment or benefits.
‘Life after refugee status’ workshops
As well as one-to-one casework support, to prepare people for ‘life after refugee status’ we have been running group workshops in various languages on how to navigate their new world of housing, benefits and work, and ensure they understand their rights and entitlements while beginning their new lives here. We have also created translated guides on how to navigate housing and benefits for our community and those outside our doors getting refugee status.
Meeting on housing for our community members
Can you help find solutions to keep our community members housed? We are going to hold a meeting for everyone willing to give some time, thought and energy into finding solutions to this housing issue. Maybe you have a flat, can buy or sublet a flat to rent to our members, or maybe you want to help with admin or strategy. If you would like to attend in person or on Zoom, please email Joanne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Case study: Masoumeh’s Story
In 2022 Masoumeh fled Iran. Today she is one of our wonderful core volunteers who we are currently supporting through the new refugee homelessness crisis. Here is her story.
Like many other Iranians, Masoumeh and her husband had to flee Iran last year for their safety. After arriving in London, Masoumeh and her husband were housed in a series of different Home Office hotels, suddenly moved from one to the other by the Home Office at a moment’s notice with little explanation. In these hotels they were not allowed to cook, taking away what Mausomeh felt was the little dignity and choice cooking would have given them in their everyday lives. Instead, they lived on microwaved meals given to them by the hotel and on their small weekly £9.10 Home Office allowance. Her husband has a stomach condition and the hotel food given to them often had little nutrition, greatly affecting his physical and mental health.
West London Welcome stepped in to support Masoumeh and her husband, supporting them to navigate incredibly poor Home Office housing conditions. While staying in a local asylum hotel, the couple were able to access our fresh groceries and hot lunches each week, improving their diets. They joined our English classes, creative activities and trips, making new friends from Iran and across the world, expanding their social networks and giving them the vital friendship and community they needed to regain hope and escape the isolation of their tiny hotel room. Both Masoumeh and her husband became volunteers at our centre, cooking up delicious Iranian food in our kitchen and helping around the centre.
In September 2023, Masoumeh and her husband finally received their refugee status – something that would normally be worthy of huge celebration.
But as with all asylum seekers granted refugee status, they were given only 28 days’ notice to leave their asylum accommodation and find themselves a job, Universal Credit, and somewhere else to live. After approaching the council for support, the council told them they didn’t have capacity to house them because they didn’t have any particular vulnerabilities, and the couple found themselves suddenly on the brink of homelessness.
Having been banned from working or receiving benefits while seeking asylum, the couple had no savings for a deposit or credit history, and had no connections with spare rooms. It is almost impossible for refugees to find landlords willing to accept housing benefit and enter the private rental market. Due to the thousands of asylum decisions being made by the government, councils and charities are scrambling to find people accommodation and there simply aren’t enough affordable rooms out there for people to live in. People are going from their asylum hotels straight to the street after being granted refugee status, unless they have a caseworker at a charity like ours supporting them.
That’s when we reached out to our amazing volunteer community. The couple are currently being hosted by a kind host who has been able to offer them a free room, while our advice team works with Masoumeh and her husband to find a longer-term housing solution.
In the future, Masoumeh wants to study medicine, and we can’t wait to help her make this happen. For now, while she and her husband work out their next steps, her voluntary work is essential to the weekly running of our community centre – she devotes much of her time to West London Welcome community members and friends, from organising food and clothes donations to cooking her famously tasty Iranian recipes.
Leyla Williams is the Deputy Director of West London Welcome. Dr Margie Cheesman is an anthropologist at Kings College London and a communications volunteer at West London Welcome.