Thousands of rough sleepers living in hotels during lockdown may not be able to access any support when they are made homeless again because of their immigration status, leaving them with no option but to return to the streets, charities warn.
Almost 15,000 rough sleepers have been housed in hotels or emergency accommodation since the lockdown began under the “Everyone In” scheme, under which local authorities in the UK were required to house rough sleepers with a £3.2m pot of funding from central government.
Ministers told local authorities at the end of May they must put in place plans to ensure all rough sleepers currently accommodated in hotels and other forms of emergency accommodation were supported as part of the “next phase” of the government’s strategy for rough sleepers.
However, charities warn that up to 50 per cent of homeless people in some areas have a “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) condition attached to their immigration status, meaning that – although many in this position can legally live and work in the UK – they are not eligible for financial or housing support.
The government has been accused of failing to provide clarity to councils as to whether these individuals should be included in the “next phase” or not, prompting concerns that many will end up back on the street.
Despite multiple calls for the NRPF policy to be suspended during the pandemic, a letter to local councils from housing minister Luke Hall on 28 May states that the policy remains in place, and councils must “use their judgement in assessing what support they may lawfully give to each person on an individual basis, considering that person’s specific circumstances and support needs”.
Campaigners said this would pave the way for more refusals of support. They said homeless people with NRPF had been met with hostility from councils throughout the lockdown, with some denied help and others told that if they are supported by the council their data may be shared with the Home Office.
An open letter to council leaders published on Thursday, signed by more than 100 charities, urges them not to evict homeless people with NRPF and not to share their information with the Home Office without consent.
The letter, whose signatories include Refugee Action, Praxis and the Big Issue Foundation, states: “As lockdown measures are eased, we are extremely concerned that some homeless people, particularly those with NRPF, may be evicted from council-provided accommodation and be forced to return to destitution.
“This would be a moral, humanitarian and public health catastrophe, especially given that many shelters will be unable to reopen due to ongoing social distancing requirements.
“We are writing to urge your local authority to commit to providing ongoing shelter and support to all those experiencing or at risk of homelessness during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, and to do so regardless of immigration status.”
The letter accuses the government of failing to provide guidance on what legal powers councils should use to support those who would not normally be eligible for assistance because of the NRPF condition, which it said had placed the “burden of supporting such people on overstretched local authorities”.
It warns that despite the efforts of some councils, many homeless people – particularly those with NRPF – have remained without shelter during the pandemic, while others have experienced unacceptable “gatekeeping” or have received inadequate support once accommodated, including threats of data-sharing.
Benjamin Morgan, coordinator of the EEA (European Economic Area) homeless rights project at the Public Interest Law Centre, told The Independent he had seen at least two cases where homeless people without recourse to public funds had approached councils during the pandemic and had been told their information would be shared with immigration enforcement if they accepted support.
In both cases, when the charity intervened, the local authorities rowed back and said they wouldn’t share the data, but he said this raised concerns about what happens to people who don’t have a charity supporting them.
“If the government is not willing to protect migrant lives during and after this public health crisis, then local councils must be prepared to take a stand against the ‘hostile environment’ by offering sanctuary. Nobody should be forced to sleep rough for want of the right papers,” Mr Morgan said.
Dr Durga Sivasathiaseelan, NHS GP and mobile clinic coordinator at Doctors of the World UK, which signed the letter, said a “lack of change in both national legislation and local government policies” had “created significant restrictions” to ensuring people aren’t forced to sleep rough after leaving the hotels.
“We know that in many hotels, over 50 per cent of residents had no recourse to public funds. Current legislation means that these people are not eligible for any support financially or with accommodation. This means that as the hotels close there is a high risk these people are going to end up back on the street,” she said.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England, has been calling for a temporary removal of the NRPF condition during the coronavirus crisis to reduce public health risks and pressures on homelessness services.
Councillor David Renard, the LGA’s housing spokesperson, said: “Councils are now planning their next steps in supporting people to move on from emergency accommodation. This needs to include clarity and funding from government for those who are homeless because of their migration status.”
It comes after The Independent revealed homeless people have already started being moved out of the hotels they have been in since the start of lockdown despite “limited” resources and affordable accommodation options in many areas, fuelling concerns that many will be forced back on to the streets.
A government spokesperson said: “We’ve been clear that councils must continue to provide safe accommodation to all vulnerable rough sleepers and support those moving on from emergency accommodation in the right way, to ensure their needs are met.
“Our new rough sleeping taskforce is ensuring that as many people as possible who have been brought in off the streets in this pandemic do not return to sleeping rough.
“To help achieve this, we have provided £3.2bn for councils to help meet Covid-19 pressures on top of specific funding for rough sleeping services. And we have accelerated plans– backed by £433m– which will deliver 6,000 additional homes for former rough sleepers across the country.“
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