Thursday, 23 October 2014

Destitute – as bad in every language

What a truly complex job outreach work with rough sleepers is nowadays. Occasionally I attend meetings of our street teams and listen with amazement at the intricacies of the issues they painstakingly seek to unravel. Frequently these involve complex immigration matters. I recently asked an outreach colleague what single thing would help her most in her work. She unhesitatingly responded, ‘rapid access to decent immigration advice’.

EU expansion

The profile of rough sleeping in Britain changed profoundly following the accession of eight central and eastern European countries to the European Union in 2004, a further two following in 2007. In London in 2005/06, central and eastern Europeans comprised just 6 per cent of the rough sleeping population. In the latest figures (2012/13) this figure stands at 28 per cent, and now 53 per cent of London’s rough sleeping population are non-UK nationals. In some parts of the country, this figure is even higher. For the first time the annual CHAIN report on rough sleeping in London, published in June, references immigration data. Apart from EU migrants, other categories include indefinite leave to remain (283), asylum seeker (32), limited leave to remain (67) and overstayer (76). Struggling, and failing, to grasp the meaning of these baffling definitions, I began to comprehend why my colleague selected immigration advice as her top request.

There has been a flurry of recent headlines concerning rough sleeping and immigration. Last month the police removed 68 people, mostly Romanian nationals, from a site in north London, working closely with the Romanian embassy, the local authority and outreach services. Many of those at the site returned voluntarily to their country. The site was squalid and insanitary. Plainly, the occupants had been living in conditions so atrocious a shanty town would seem palatial in comparison.

There are numerous sites of this type in towns, cities and rural areas around the country, some hidden, others grimly exposed and blighting local neighbourhoods. Yet this horrifying phenomenon of rough sleeping among predominantly non-UK nationals remains an issue that, with honourable exceptions, homelessness organisations are reluctant to highlight, less still debate.

The publicity accompanying the release of the latest rough sleeping figures for London illustrates this. Reports focused determinedly on the overall increase in numbers sleeping rough; speculation that welfare benefit changes are bringing more people onto the street; youth homelessness; and the need for more affordable housing - most of this list could have been effortlessly compiled at any point in the past 30 years, even during that period of pre-recession prosperity that we now view as a golden age.

Tackling migrant homelessness and working with people with complex immigration issues is a high-risk business. As the statistics indicate, it involves engaging with some people who are living in this country illegally. Any serious debate on the subject runs the risk of being manipulated by dubious pressure groups and populist politicians. Yet the homelessness sector, by behaving as if it hopes to side-step debating these matters, is failing to shine a light on a developing humanitarian disaster as people are consigned to live in deplorable conditions, the worst witnessed for a generation and certainly comparable to the monstrous ‘cardboard cities’ of the 1980s.

Detached from reality

In the process, we are in danger of becoming detached from the realities facing our street teams and ignoring the impact that mass occupation of derelict buildings, spaces under bridges and wasteland is having on communities. For colleagues working on the street with rough sleepers, the key working relationships are often with the police and the fire service, the latter naturally horrified by the extreme fire risk that is a consistent feature of these occupied sites. Yet the organisers of conferences I attend on tackling rough sleeping rarely invite these key partners and, should the need for an enforcement response to assertively address anti-social behaviour and illegal activities carried out by people living on the street be mooted, it is viewed as decidedly bad form.

And too many bad things happen for us to prevaricate. On a bleak November evening last year in south London, three Polish rough sleepers were huddled beneath a crudely built structure draped with plastic sheeting. The two men and one woman were inebriated but the woman decided to accept the offer of a place at the local assessment centre. Walking towards the outreach van, she had a late change of mind and turned back to her two compatriots. Later that evening a fire started at the encampment and grew to become a furnace. Tragically, all three perished.

The trapped minority

For the majority of people from Europe and elsewhere seeking work in this country, the experience is positive. For the small minority who do find themselves destitute, we are able to convince most that a planned return home is their best option. Yet there remains an intransigent group with little chance of employment who for months, even years, take the ostensibly easy option of living on the street or in derelict buildings surviving on food handouts, drifting aimlessly, sadly unchallenged by some of the support staff they meet within homelessness services.

We observe their living situation becoming increasingly squalid and their health and self-worth collapsing. But doesn’t our lack of outrage and reticence to apply pressure on people to face reality and either achieve self-sufficiency through employment or return home with support tacitly encourage a belief that there is this third way - the path of perilous inertia?

And so, as the scenes of squalor we witness become an increasingly familiar part of our working lives, we settle into that untroubled state of being comfortably numb.

Jeremy Swain is chief executive of homelessness charity Thames Reach

Readers' comments (10)

  • It is timely to remind/inform the rest of the world that life in Britain may well not be the bed of roses they may have expected - when leaving their home countries.

    JRF stats tell us that nearly half of UK households are living in poverty - 11.2 million households - despite over half ie 6.2 million households being in work.

    Logically we need to sort out the indigenous issues first - since if we are unable to tackle even that - there is no hope of improving matters for new economic migrants.

    London so we are told is the destination of choice for majority of immigrants - yet the welfare cuts will likely force many London families away from the capital.

    Immigration in to UK should be subject to proving that one has a permanent job enabling one to support oneself - or other means of doing so - ie cash savings. That applies in other countries....

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  • Daedalus

    Correct realist. Now wait for the masses to start bleating that this is racism.

    Australia has starting sending illegal immigrants to the nearest place they pass by on their way to Australia (Papua New Guinea). This is entirely in line with the premise that refugees should stop at the first country in which they can apply for asylum - the cries of racism there are deafening.

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  • I am retired and live in Poland, It has similar problems. The issue I would raise though, is the unrealistic view of the UK of many, often well educated, people here. They see wages of 12k/year, 3,4,5 times their own. They do not see though, rents of 400/month, or tea at 3 pounds a cup. Here we can get a meal for 2, with beer, in a good restaurant for 10pounds. Those expectations are transferred with the expectation of a high income. Reality is shocking! Unless people are educated at home, they will continue to try for a better life abroad, and some will end up on the streets. We love life here, and would never return to the desparate UK, but we find it really hard to convince our friends here of it!. I have no solutions- only praise for those who devote their lives to helping others

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  • Chris - that is very illuminating - sounds like you have hit on the way forward - that we somehow provide aspiring economic immigrants with an "executive summary" of wages/taxes/living costs in UK - plus a copy of the JRF poverty stats for UK.

    I imagine a summary of London rents would be dissuasive enough - and surprising that even the well educated in Poland are less than well informed on such matters - with all relevant data on the internet.

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  • Daniel Sweeney

    Realist, I agree with you on this one. We dont look after our 'own' never mind immigrants. Poeple may indeed call that racist, but I'll take the truth over ill informed comments any day. If its racist to say we should be dealing with our own internal structural and demographic problems as a priority then I'll wear that increasingly over used and meaningless label along with my other collection.

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  • New labour allowed around 3 million new people to enter and stay in the UK in the past 13 years , mostly from Eastern Europe, and
    these people have mostly gone to stay in the poorest parts
    of the UK , without any care /consideration/consent from the
    existing local people in these areas !!!!!
    These numbers have dramatically changed the profile of these places , and put a collassal strain on the social and housing
    services in these areas.

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  • "we are in danger of becoming detached from the realities facing our street teams and ignoring the impact that mass occupation of derelict buildings, spaces under bridges and wasteland is having on communities."

    So, is Thames Reach a homeless charity or a a pressure group looking after the interests of people discommoded by the effects of rough sleeping homeless people?

    The tone of this piece seems to suggest the latter and you are content to take your place in the ranks of the law and order brigade, ready to scatter the homeless to the winds as soon as they get a sniff of some relief in a temporary shelter.....

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  • From what I can gather on a quick look on the net - average net annual salary in Poland is c.£8000 - and one assumes that is a living wage in Poland.

    An average full time gross wage in UK is c.£27500 - netting say £21721 ignoring pension/commute costs.

    Can a single adult netting 21.7k in UK live in self contained accommodation and pay all bills? Yes they can - but there will be little if any potential to save - so unless they downsize to flat share/bedsit - it will largely be work/eat/sleep until retirement - unless they can live in Midlands/North and still earn an average salary.

    A young Polish adult coming to the UK will often have sub optimal language skill - and thus be limited to min wage roles - which then needs an 84 hour week to match the UK gross average salary. So if they came to seek their fortune they will only achieve that by sharing cheap cramped accommodation - thus enabling some cash savings to be sent back to home country.

    Overall difficult to assess whether the UK can provide equal or better life to a typical Polish immigrant. No doubt cost of living varies widely by region in Poland - as it does in UK - and likely too is that where living is cheap wages are poor.

    Of course if a young Polish male arrives with wife and children - and finds even part time min wage work - the tax credits in due course will top up earned income very substantially - at expense of UK tax payer.

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  • Gavin Rider

    "Tackling migrant homelessness and working with people with complex immigration issues is a high-risk business."

    I wonder what constitutes a "complex immigration issue"?

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  • Gavin Rider

    I would like to congratulate Jeremy Swain for having the courage to post such an article on this website.

    Had anyone else had the nerve to even hint that homelessness in the capital has a link with immigration, there would have been torrents of abuse hurled at them by the usual suspects who are notably absent from here today.

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