‘Everyone In’: A Moment of Hope for Migrants Experiencing Homelessness?
As our last blog post evidenced, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the devastating correlation between inadequate housing and vulnerability to illness and premature death.
As public health became an overnight policy focus, the UK government introduced radical plans to place thousands of individuals rough sleeping across the country into emergency accommodation. Most crucially for migrants, the 'Everyone In' campaign suspended, for the very first time, the eligibility criteria that had blocked many migrants – and with increasing rigidity – from accessing homelessness support due to the conditions of their immigration status.
'Everyone In': Emergency Accommodation For All
From March 2020, and with £3.2 million of emergency government funding provided, 'Everyone In' required local authorities to temporarily accommodate all individuals rough sleeping or at risk of rough sleeping in their areas throughout lockdown, regardless of their immigration status. For many migrants, this provided the very first experience of receiving statutory support, and a moment of possibility after months or years of rough sleeping and hidden homelessness. The scheme provided individuals with a room in hotel accommodation (or similar), with access to their own bathroom and up to three free meals per day.
Introducing Our Research: Initial Findings
Our interviews, conducted with staff working across seven homelessness organisations in England, have illuminated the multiple ways in which 'Everyone In' changed the lives of migrants, left almost entirely invisible pre-COVID. As one support worker noted:
‘Everyone In’ gave us an opportunity to house people with no rules, really, like we could house anyone who was in need, because it was everyone in…. Anyone that came to our doors that was in crisis could get housed.
Others remarked on the huge increase between the numbers of homeless individuals that organisations were aware of prior to the pandemic and how many were actually housed in the hotels:
You know, considering the rough sleeping count, there were 35 people on the count, maybe not even that, 25 or 30, and there were 50 people in the overnight accommodation. So you’d expect to be able to house 70 people, but they opened up two hotels. Two hundred and twenty people were accommodated in single room accommodation, so that shows you that it’s not just those that were known to us. There were people who were in shocking accommodation options, staying with friends or unknown to us on the streets, were in squats. But actually, suddenly having a hotel room and food provided during COVID was fantastic.
In part, this discrepancy highlights the impact of the pandemic in making increasing numbers of people vulnerable to homelessness. In addition, it illuminates both the invisible crisis of hidden homelessness prior to the pandemic and just how many individuals lacked access to – or, as our research is also finding, knowledge of - statutory homelessness support. This is particularly pertinent to migrant homelessness, as it isn’t always the case that a migrant is ineligible for statutory assistance. Rather, migrants are often left unaware of their legal entitlements to welfare or housing support where they are applicable. As another support worker elaborates:
A lot of our clients just don’t know that, [they] have no understanding of their benefits and entitlements…. [they] just don’t know what their entitlements are and how to access them. And yes, that’s why they end up homeless. Almost no European national, until we tell them or support them with that, have known that they’re entitled to benefits, a lot of them don’t even know what benefits are.
Access to Immigration Advice
In providing opportunities for engagement between clients and services, 'Everyone In' moved beyond simply accommodating individuals in the temporary moment. It gave some migrants invaluable knowledge and advice for overcoming homelessness in the long-term. As migrant homelessness is so closely linked to immigration status issues, support workers found the scheme particularly transformative for the way it enabled them to meet regularly with migrant clients. Stable hotel accommodation meant that staff were able to build trusting and meaningful support relationships with migrants, connecting them with crucial immigration advice and advocacy. One support worker recalls the following:
My biggest thing is I had an opportunity to finally work with women who had been kind of sofa-surfing but homeless for years and years, and we finally got to address their immigration issues. Get them linked in with an immigration advice team, so they actually finally got to meet with an actual solicitor and their case was going to be looked at.
This has been particularly significant in the context of Brexit, as many European nationals experiencing rough sleeping were left unaware of the EU Settlement Scheme, or, unable to collate the necessary evidence to apply. Without the opportunity provided by 'Everyone In', these individuals could soon be facing multiple harms and risks associated with lacking legal immigration status, including deportation.
Access to Healthcare
Just as for UK-nationals, experiences of homelessness leave non-UK nationals particularly exposed to a number of health concerns surrounding their physical health, mental health and substance use. For migrants, both knowledge and ineligibility profoundly impact the ability to connect with healthcare services. In increasing proximity to homelessness support services, 'Everyone In' provided a means for migrants to access GPs, community mental health support, and rehab services, as this senior support worker details:
You’re supporting people maintaining and attending their appointments, making appointments whether that’s for the benefit agency, whether that’s to the recovery hub to help them…remind them they’ve got to go and pick up their script, they’ve got to pick up their prescription for this. They’ve got an ulcer on their leg, we need to ring 111, they’ve got a bad cold or they’re not very well we need to call…get a doctor’s appointment. We’ve got a homeless healthcare team as well which has got a mental health nurse, we’ve got a doctor, a GP, we work in partnership with a local practice.
'Everyone In': A Moment of Hope?
For homeless migrants, then, there is far more at stake in accessing statutory homelessness support than just accommodation provision. In this sense, 'Everyone In' was undoubtedly a ground-breaking moment for migrant homelessness, with impacts that will last well beyond the scheme itself. Yet, it is also important to reflect critically on the 'Everyone In' response, both its limitations in practice and the temporary nature of the break it provided from ‘business as usual’. We turn to this in our next blog post, as we continue introducing our project’s initial findings and the insights they give us for understanding the complex and sometimes contradictory experiences of homeless migrants during COVID-19.
This post is part of a series titled Homeless Migrants and COVID-19: Mapping the layers of crisis.
This post reflects the views of the University of Portsmouth research team only, and not those of our project collaborators, the homelessness charity St Mungo's.