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.

 

High rent, unemployment, homelessness and rehousing: The Ahmeds at the #Londonfoodbank

Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich food bank
Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich foodbank

 

Sadida Ahmed and her husband Malik used to have a reasonable life. Yes, they rented from a private landlord, and because this is London they paid a lot for the ‘privilege’ – £1,200 a month. But they both used to work – Malik had spent 15 years working full-time as a security guard. According to Malik, 44,  ‘everything was fine’. But now they are struggling, and they came into the Greenwich food bank pushing their two  daughters of just 17 months and six months in the pram. They became homeless when the landlord gave them notice to quit. The rent had become too high for the couple to afford. They were rehoused by Lambeth Council ‘out of borough’, so they ended up living in a council property  in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

Before the family moved in they say they were told that the council property was furnished – but it turned out to be unfurnished. So one of the babies doesn’t have a cot and the couple are sleeping (and sitting) on an old mattress in the living room. They do have a cooker – but no washing machine.

Malik is looking for work and Sadida, 28, is four months pregnant. What little money they have – Malik’s Job seeker’s Allowance, child tax credit and child benefit – doesn’t go very far. Having small children is very expensive at the best of times. Money needs to be found for nappies, formula milk and baby clothes, on top of the usual household bills.

Here Malik describes the family’s difficult circumstances.

He says: ‘I have £113 a week and I have to pay bills and pay for the babies’  food. I’m really struggling at the moment and I don’t know what to do and that’s why I’m here. I ran out of food. I’m not getting enough money to look after my family at the moment. I’m keen for work and looking for a job. When a job comes I will be fine, but at the moment it’s really hard.  I have two small babies of six months and 17 months, and my missus she’s pregnant too. Shes 14 weeks plus. It’s really hard to cope with.’

Harpinder Singh, a local councillor in Woolwich happened to be at the food bank, and met the couple. Malik has promised to get in touch with him. Harpinder, who has spent some time in this food bank recently, says that the situations he encounters might be expected ‘in the Far East or Africa, but we shouldn’t see them here’. He says he recently heard of a young family with no electricity or gas at home – ‘and then it becomes a safeguarding issue as they can’t cook food’. The next step in that case was to refer the issue to staff at the council, for an immediate response’.

He believes that the Royal Borough of Greenwich ‘has a willingness to help’. He says that before the most significant changes to the benefits system kicked in, ‘we identified people who were most likely to be affected by the changes – we identified them early and tried to help them get back into work’. He said that ‘to his knowledge we have not had to move people out of borough – not like in Tower Hamlets or Westminster’. He added: ‘It’s about using your resources – we’ve done well (at helping the vulnerable on the limited resources we have.’

Councillor Singh believes that its going to get even harder to help the most needy.  The Local Government Association has warned that support for vulnerable people in crisis will either have to be scaled back or scrapped completely in almost three-quarters of council areas from next April when government stops funding for Local Welfare Assistance schemes. A survey of local authorities suggests ‘councils will hugely struggle to maintain current levels of help for vulnerable people when government scraps the £347 million Local Welfare Assistance fund next year’, according to the LGA, and ‘the ending of government funding for councils’ emergency support schemes comes on top of a 40 per cent reduction in local government funding over the course of this Parliament’.

The Local Welfare Assistance fund was introduced in 2013 to replace government-provided crisis loans, with each local authority area allocated money from the £347 million total. Government’s local government finance settlement published last December revealed that funding would not be continued from 2015, despite no consultation being held on the scheme’s future.

Meanwhile, in the increasingly surreal world of London housing, London Mayor Boris Johnson is said to be about to approve plans today for ‘affordable housing’ flats that could cost tenants up to £2,800 a month to rent. He’s not fighting a one-man crusade either. According to a letter in the Guardian yesterday from chairs of the former crown estate residents’ associations, Peabody, a charity whose founding purpose is to improve the conditions of the poor and needy in London, is ‘also advertising homes it bought from the crown estate in 2011 at ‘affordable’ rents that no key worker can afford’. The former chairs have called on Peabody to ‘scrap this ludicrous rent model and honour its commitments to us and to its founding principles’.

When Malik finds a job, what are the chances that he can move his young family into a home in a location of their choice, at a level of rent that still enables them to lead a decent life?

Is that too much to ask?

 

Homeless cleared from London streets: But many face long stays in waiting areas

David Goddard spent four weeks sleeping on the floor at one of  the three No Second Night Out hubs in London. The target length of stay is 72 hours.
David Goddard spent four weeks sleeping on the floor at one of the three No Second Night Out hubs in London. The target length of stay is 72 hours.
A few weeks ago I wrote about David Goddard, a young homeless man who was released from prison and spent a number of weeks in accommodation known as the hub in Lewisham, South East London. The hub is a place which takes in new rough sleepers, and is run by an organisation called No Second Night Out (NSNO). NSNO was set up in 2011 by Mayor of London Boris Johnson as part of an agenda to end rough sleeping in London by 2012. The Greater London Authority (GLA) pays for the stays. The idea is to stop the homeless spending a second night on the street and to prevent them becoming entrenched there. There are two other NSNO hubs in London providing emergency spaces for the homeless – in Islington and Shepherd’s Bush. NSNO describes these places as “an A&E for the homeless – a safe space”, and as a “staging area”.

David told me that in the past he had an issue with heroin addiction and had been forced to steal to survive. He got into trouble with the police and ended up in prison because of this. He  said a few things about his NSNO hub accommodation that concerned me. He described a room containing about 25 people of both sexes, with people sleeping on the floor and chairs. He also said people as young as 16 or 17 had been there, and that he had been staying there for six weeks.

I needed to check all this out, because of the safeguarding issues potentially raised. To do this I spoke to Deputy Director of NSNO Dan Olney, who talked me through the project. He said: “NSNO is an emergency response to rough sleeping. Before we were around,  an outreach worker would have approached someone on the street. It didn’t provide for  that emergency need, and if they arranged to meet someone the next day it was difficult. Instead we have a hub rather than a hostel and the intended length of stay is 72 hours. The reality is there are cases where people stay there longer than that. It’s usually because we are trying to get an outcome via the local authority.”

When people overstay, “60 per cent of the time it’s because of a third-party – a mix of someone waiting for an appointment with the local authority, or for a response from a housing provider, or they’ve been assessed and are waiting for a housing vacancy”. NSNO “usually” expects the local authority to provide interim accommodation. “Quite often that depends on the client’s needs. A lot of our work is focused on trying to get people a service if they are entitled to it,” he added. David, he says, ended up in the unit for four weeks, rather than the six weeks he mentioned.

David told me that he was asked to leave after he got involved in a dispute with another person staying there. When I met him he had started squatting locally in an industrial unit.

Dan Olney said that if those taken into one of the three hubs had a link with another area (where they have spent three of the last five years), staff arrange to go with them to their “home” local authority and ask them to take on the case. But, “if they don’t meet the thresholds of priority need then there is guidance – but no legal obligation to meet their housing needs”. Of the 6,000 clients they’ve had since 2011, for the ones they recorded, 30 per cent had already approached their local authority for advice and assistance. For example, he told me that in the last quarter – January to March – 91 new rough sleepers had come to the borough of Westminster alone and had become clients of NSNO. But only two had a connection to Westminster. Many of them are EU nationals or from further afield.

So the aim is to do an assessment on each client within 72 hours and to then physically reconnect them to the place where they have a “home connection”. He says that NSNO “literally reconnects people worldwide, and it’s not just (giving them) a ticket – it’s working with the Home Office towards making them an offer”. What then about duty of care for the many clients who can’t be moved on within this time frame? “Security and safety is a big thing for us. We’re staffed 24 hours a day and we have to be very strict with people. If someone is presenting as a risk to people, then we give them a warning. If they’re demonstrating threatening behaviour or if someone is particularly vulnerable to a particular client group we would put them into a different part of the service.”

While the Greater London Authority pays for the stays having awarded the NSNO project a two-year contract, the project is actually run by St Mungo’s Broadway, which describes itself on its website as “a charity, a limited company and a housing association”. It says there that its aim is “helping people recover from the issues that create homelessness”. St Mungo’s Broadway employs the NSNO staff.

NSNO, said Dan, “manages safeguarding ourselves internally, and if we had a concern we would flag it up ourselves and contact the duty officer at local safeguarding services”. As well as a “risk management strategy for everyone in the hub, we have individual risk assessments”. He said the minimum age for someone staying in the hub is 18. “If they are 16 or 17 years old they would go straight to the local authority.”The hubs in Islington and Shepherd’s Bush have the option of separate accommodation for women. Dan said the hub in Lewisham is the staging post for people with lower needs. He added: “For people who have got higher needs we try to press the local authority to get them somewhere away from the hub. David would not have necessarily been acceptable for that, and a lot of time this is the reason for a long stay.”

He described NSNO as a project that is “rapid” at getting people off the streets, “but the systems that are in place around us are not always conducive to us meeting our targets”. Quite often, there’s a dispute with the local authority about whether it should be taking on a client. “It comes down to the person (from the local authority) who had done the assessment. We may think a person has a priority need, but the local authority assessment comes to a different conclusion.” The project is currently drawing up protocols with all local authorities in London, with the aim of ensuring the 72-hour time for dealing with clients is met. “The ethos is about trying to influence external partners to change the way they work to expedite the process to get people off the street,” said Dan. Some local authorities, in his view, are completely engaged with the process. Others, “particularly outer London boroughs – say we’re not having them back”.