Operation Yellowhammer – the government’s contingency plan for leaving the EU – doesn’t mention the homeless. Yet EU citizens sleeping rough on Britain’s streets are at risk of becoming the forgotten victims of a no-deal Brexit. And what is extremely worrying is that even the government’s revised, light-touch Brexit document makes it clear that no deal will bring widespread and potentially dangerous consequences for those who are most vulnerable.
A 2017 report for Crisis and Homeless Link has set out some of the serious risks facing homeless EU citizens that Brexit will create. Top of that list is the hostile environment and the concern that EU rough sleepers will be deterred from seeking help for fear – hardly unfounded – of deportation. These challenges will add to many existing barriers when it comes to accessing healthcare, benefits and support.
Rising homelessness is one of the worst consequences of austerity, which has been ongoing for almost a decade. And the British public shouldn’t expect any step change from the new prime minister. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson pledged to end rough sleeping in the capital by the 2012 Olympics. The reality was that rough sleeping doubled during Johnson’s second term.
The lack of political impetus from the current government to tackle this issue was apparent during the recent spending review: an additional £54 million was set aside in 2020/2021 to address rough sleeping across the country, contributing to a total of £422m targeting that issue for the year. This expenditure was not the departure from austerity the government would have us believe. We would need £574 million to address rough sleeping in the capital alone, as set out in London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s rough sleeping action plan.
The absence of political will is not the only barrier to eradicating, or even reducing, homelessness. There is seemingly some underlying contempt for homeless people too – this is where the danger grows for rough sleepers from the EU.
This summer, the Home Office was reportedly attempting to work with charities and local authorities to deport non-citizen rough sleepers. In 2017 the High Court ruled this approach to be illegal, but that does not seem to be enough to tear this government away from its “hostile environment” policy, under the shadow of which these deportations took place.
Thankfully, in London, where EU citizens accounted for over a third of the almost 9,000 people sleeping rough last year, the Home Office’s advances are being rejected. Sadiq Khan recently confirmed that services supported by the Greater London Authority would not participate in passing on information about individual rough sleepers without their permission. Haringey and Islington councils have also made clear their refusal to cooperate with the Home Office.
But as Boris Johnson continues to push aside democracy in his belief that no deal could somehow be in any way beneficial to this country, the protections for vulnerable EU citizens will lessen.
Rising homelessness is an issue that is met with equal measures of frustration and compassion by the British public. Frustration because there seems to be no end in sight to this upward trend, and compassion because there is a real desire to help. We’ve seen the latter in the capital, with Londoners rallying behind Mayor Khan’s efforts to tackle rough sleeping. They’ve volunteered in their thousands for outreach centres, and last winter donated £250,000 to homeless charities.
Volunteers’ generosity cannot be understated and it needs to be matched and exceeded by a central government willing to deliver the sea change required to eradicate homelessness once and for all. In the meantime there is one very swift action the government could take to remove the immediate threat to EU rough sleepers, and that is to take no deal off the table.
Tom Copley is a Labour Londonwide Assembly member, and Labour’s London Assembly Housing spokesperson
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