Mohammed and the night bus: A search for #asylum and hope

Mohammed and the night bus: A search for #asylum and hope
Mohammed's asylum application has been refused
Mohammed’s asylum application has been refused

Mohammed came into this  south-east London food bank in search of help. But he feels no sense of belonging here any more – and seems disconnected from the events taking place around him.

He’s a casualty of war. He made the journey from Iraq to the UK in 2005 as a stowaway on a lorry, when he was 22 years old. His father, one of Saddam Hussein’s policemen, had been killed. The terrible trip took three or four weeks. To this day he doesn’t know what happened to the rest of his Kurdish family. They ran away to Syria and he lost track of them after that.

He’s homeless now and his asylum case has been refused. He can’t work, because he hasn’t got the immigration status to do that. Feeling that he’s come to the end of the line here in England, he wants to return to Iraq. The UK Immigration Services won’t let him, given the ongoing insurgency. Now 33, Mohammed is drinking heavily and depressed.  Some days, when he doesn’t have a drink, he starts shaking. ‘I drink too much and I’m thinking about my family.’ He’s had enough of life on the streets of London, where he sleeps when he can’t find a place on the floor of a pub. Some nights he sleeps at the train station or at a homeless shelter. On a few occasions he is allowed  to stay at a friend’s flat.

It’s cold and he doesn’t feel it would be any more dangerous in Iraq than it is here. ‘I have no home – nowhere to go. Two weeks ago I saw someone stab a person with a knife on the streets. Sometimes you see very dangerous people. Three months ago someone attacked me. He punched me in the mouth and I lost a tooth.’ His health is deteriorating. ‘I went to the GP today and told him I can’t eat properly.’ He showed me some medicine he’s been given.

In 2008 Mohammed ended up in prison for a year, followed by a 17-month spell in a detention centre because of his immigration status. Mohammed says all he had done was to ask someone for a cigarette – ‘but the man said I robbed him’.  He says that he challenged the detention at High Court and ‘won the case – I should have got £60,000, but they gave me £5,000. His girlfriend at the time stood by him while he was in detention and offered good support. But the relationship foundered.

He was sent to hospital for help to overcome his addiction to alcohol, but the detox therapy would have cost £4,800 and the Immigration Services refused to fund it. He has to check in with the Immigration Services regularly to prove he’s still in the country. Because he is destitute he can’t afford the train ticket. So every time he travels by train he runs the risk of a fine he can’t pay – followed by a trip to court and potentially another conviction for a criminal offence.

This Trussell Trust food bank was able to give Mohammed a supply of three days non-perishable food. This food is long life, and much of it needs to be cooked or heated. That’s a problem, because Mohammed normally has nowhere to cook it. He’s homeless. On the night we met he was trying hard to contact a friend to see if he could sleep at his home. I spoke to one of  the volunteers at the food bank, who said how difficult it can be to ‘signpost’ people such as Mohammed, to try to get them some help. There don’t seem to be any avenues left for him.

Mohammed told me he often sleeps on the night buses that connect the centre of London to the outer suburbs. ‘It’s not just me – there are many people who do this. People without houses.’

You don’t have to be an asylum seeker to be at risk of  homelessness in the UK. A recent analysis of government data by the University of St Andrews on behalf of Shelter, found that one in 8 UK households are surviving on low incomes while paying unaffordable housing costs. This is putting them under huge financial pressure, and  ‘more than one in 10 working families in England have had to sell possessions to cover their housing costs’. A two-bedroom flat in London costs up to £1,470 in rent, with many remaining empty and unlet for months because many public sector workers and pensioners just can’t afford them.

Next time you’re in London on a night bus, try looking around to work out  how many people are there because they have nowhere else to go.  But you might find that everyone is staring at you.

Many thanks to Mohammed for sharing his experiences of  life as an asylum seeker in London.

 

The homeless addict given emergency housing – above a pub: Paul’s story

The homeless addict given emergency housing – above a pub: Paul’s story
blah
Paul Foster: Given emergency housing above a pub

I headed back to the impressive Jerico Road project in Catford, South-East London last night. This church-based organisation offers very practical support to vulnerable adults – most of whom come to the project initially as rough sleepers. I got the chance to talk to Paul Foster, who very kindly shared his experiences recently. As he spoke to me, I realised that I’m starting to hear the same narrative, repeated by a number of vulnerable ex-offenders.

Paul, aged 34, is bipolar and describes himself as a recovering crack and heroin addict. He’s an intelligent man, who takes a keen interest in politics. What he can’t comprehend is why people are living on the streets at all. ‘Why are so many people starving and homeless? The money is there, but it’s just not directed at the right people.’

He was released from prison five months ago, at the end of a 10 month sentence for the £80 theft of washing machine liquid. This was just the latest in a long line of about 20 drug-related thefts. ‘Yes, I’m a repeat offender. The system doesn’t help drug addicts any more. Every time I go in front of a judge I get a custodial sentence.’ While in prison, he said he ‘built some bridges’ with his father. On leaving prison, he moved in with him – his mother having died a few years ago. But Paul became homeless when his father asked him to leave a month ago.

Paul then slept on the train from Victoria to Penge East for four days, before approaching a housing association for help in the London Borough of Bromley where he grew up. Instead of finding him somewhere to live in his borough, they placed him in an emergency hostel on the Old Kent Road – miles away and  in an entirely different borough. This has left him stranded in one-roomed hostel accommodation above a pub. Paul’s comment on the suitability of the location for a person with an addictive personality sums it up succinctly enough for me: ‘If you’re a recovering crack and heroin addict you’re  f***** .’ He’s also far from all the people who were helping him, including his mental health team, who knew him well. The only ‘support’ on hand, according to Paul, is a person who gets people their cereal in the mornings.

This 26-room unit is, says Paul, being used as accommodation for a number of African families – one family to a room. ‘Kids, mum and all – in the same room with one bed.’

His account echoes the picture given to me a few weeks ago here at the Jerico Road project by David Goddard, a 24-year-old with drug issues who was homeless and stole for food and drugs. He was arrested 10 times as he moved round the country – mostly for shoplifting food. He was released from prison earlier this year with no support in place. He ended up in a different hostel to Paul in South-East London, but was asked to leave that unit and has ended up squatting. The conditions he described at that hostel – men. women and young people sleeping in one communal room – sounded risky to say the least and I’m checking out the issues raised.

Paul has been in his emergency hostel for just under a week. He says the next step will be to see what the Bromley-based housing association will offer him next. Will it enable him to access support from his GP and  the mental health team in his home borough  – the people best placed to offer him proper help? I wish I could be more optimistic about his prospects, and I hope to post an update on this. Many thanks to Paul for speaking out.

 

Starvation, shoplifting, prison, some quiche and a cheese knife: David’s story

Starvation, shoplifting, prison, some quiche and a cheese knife: David’s story

David Goddard, who says he was forced to shoplift after JSA was withdrawn. He ended up in prison.
David Goddard, who says he was forced to shoplift after JSA was withdrawn. He ended up in prison.
Here in the UK, the daily experiences of  the increasing numbers of people who’ve had  benefits sanctioned or removed aren’t discussed much across the media. Often individuals seem to drop off the public services radar, and no-one appears to be looking out for them. Many become homeless.

There seem to be fewer sources of help available now for the destitute.  The number of support workers, social workers, GPs  or probation officers with the time and resources to help a client with complex issues appears to be dwindling. The  ‘multi-agency approach’ seems like a sick joke now – unless you know differently?

Last night, at the Jerico Road project in Catford, South-East London, I spoke to David Goddard, a 27-year-old who comes from South-West England, but has moved around constantly in the last year. He’d come along to this church-based support project for the regular Wednesday night hot meal –  alongside others  who’ve ended up at the sharp end of the austerity experiment in London. Quite a few of the 90 or so people attending this week are homeless. David is one of them.

He very honestly laid out what’s happened to him since February 2013, since he lost his job in catering in Gloucester. Before that he had run raves within the alternative scene and had a record label. He has also worked part-time in a nightclub and as a part-time carer. After losing his catering job he spent six weeks with no money while waiting for his Jobseeker’s Allowance  (JSA) claim to be processed. During this time he had to borrow money from family to survive. By the end of March/early April 2013 he’d been suspended from JSA for a week by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for apparently missing an interview. He then says he got a letter through saying his JSA had been cancelled. He said: ‘I then spent the next month or two seeing if the DWP would give me an interview, filling in applications for a fresh claim online, but not getting any texts or acknowledgements.’

At this stage things took a substantial turn for the worse: ‘I was back taking heroin, and I got made homeless, because I’d moved into a family member’s home, but had to move out because that person said they couldn’t let me continue to live there unless I got benefits. But Gloucester Council wouldn’t pay me housing benefits, because I was living in a family member’s house. Then I started shoplifting. I’m not proud of it, but if  you went 24 hours without food you will shoplift. By the end of the summer I was taking enough to survive.’ At this stage, he was also paying for the heroin that way.

He got in touch with the local food bank, but he says they told him they couldn’t help unless he was on employment and support allowance (ESA). He couldn’t find anyone who would give him a voucher to access the food bank. He says he tried the jobcentre and Citizen’s Advice, to no avail.

Between July and Christmas 2013 David was arrested 10 times as he moved around the country, mostly for shoplifting food. Once, when shoplifting for a meal, he was arrested  for possession of some quiche and a cheese knife to eat it with. On that occasion he was charged with possession of a blade. The shoplifting happened in various locations. He ended up in court six times, ‘but they did not actually prosecute me’, and the cases were postponed.

He moved to Southall in West London last November while on bail – at which point he says he was ‘off heroin – but shoplifting to survive’. Southall put him in a probation house. But on Boxing Day he was arrested for stealing a microwave dinner from Tesco. At that point, he says ‘they stacked up nine months of shoplifting charges, plus charges for common assault’ – he got in a fight with a security guard and a roadsweeper who tried to stop him stealing the meal – plus criminal damage and theft of a motor vehicle and put him inside for two and a half months from New Year’s Day 2014.

While he was initially in prison in Wormwood Scrubs, he says he then got shunted  at very short notice to a host of  prisons to attend nearby hearings on the other accumulated charges. During this series of ‘expeditions’, he was shifted to Wandsworth, Bristol, Leicester, and Hewell (near Redditch, Worcestershire) prisons in succession. David was released on March 28, with a travel warrant to get him to London, but without a probation officer. He had a JSA payment of £140 that had hit his account in December from a fresh claim made on November 6th. But this had to last him  ‘until my benefits came through, so I was homeless again’.

He headed back to his old shared probation house in Southall: ‘Everything I had was in that house. Eight suitcases of my property and my portfolio on arts, graphics and fashion work that I was planning to take with me to university interviews, and my computer.’  He says that he and a number of his friends were very interested in design, ‘and when I was in prison I spent my time drawing and sketching’. But he couldn’t get access to the house, and couldn’t contact the support workers, because ‘every number had changed’.

Next he submitted a further fresh JSA claim to the DWP in Catford, South-East London on April 14th, and was offered a place at a housing association hostel for the homeless in nearby Lewisham on April 16. He received one JSA payment after that, but says that because he had to attend an interview back at Gloucester Council, ‘I missed a jobcentre interview in Catford, so the DWP cancelled my claim’  He says he spent six weeks at the hostel sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag  ‘in one large room with seats and a television, sharing with 25 men and women’.

He believes some of those in the room were aged no more than 16 or 17. It’s very hard to see how treating a group who are vulnerable by nature of being homeless in this way could comply with any safeguarding or duty of care responsibilities. Are these people really safer here in this room than they are on the streets?

David says he was ‘kicked out’ of  the hostel when he ‘got into a verbal disagreement’ with another client that then turned into a physical fight. He left last Friday, May 30. He’s now squatting in a unit on an industrial estate that’s being used to store scrap metal. There’s no electricity there.

The dedicated volunteers at the Jerico Road project are going to do what they can to help David. They’ve fixed a meeting with him very soon to talk about his benefits and housing situation. One of the great aspects of this church is its focus on trying to tackle underlying problems such as debt, addiction and homelessness.

David wonders whether his past involvement in the alternative scene and in running raves is counting against him when it comes to looking for a job. He says the past five years have been tough ones for him and his friends from the former scene. ‘Lots of people have been shut down from doing music events, and a lot of my friends have been screwed over. Three of my friends have committed suicide in the last few years.’  He wonders if he’s ‘on a list’.

Maybe David would have ended up on the streets without that initial JSA suspension in Gloucester, but at the very least he was destabilised once that small amount of regular money was withdrawn. According to the latest Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) crime survey released in April, shoplifting is up 6 per cent year on year, while overall crime has fallen significantly. The government is still arguing that there is no link between welfare reforms and the use of food banks.  Is it equally convinced that benefits sanctions don’t lead directly to desperate people shoplifting to feed themselves?