‘Everybody In’ scheme providing lifeline during pandemic
Rough sleepers have been housed during the pandemic
February 13, 2021
Hitesh, not his real name, is one of hundreds of rough sleepers in the Ealing area who have been housed through the Government’s ‘Everybody In scheme’ during the pandemic.
But he is part of a smaller group of homeless people who usually are not legally allowed access to many benefits such as housing or homelessness assistance, due to their immigration status, known as No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).
People who can be subject to no recourse to public funds include those in the UK on temporary grounds such as a spousal visa or student visa, or who are migrants not given permission to stay in the country. According to Ealing Council, it means they cannot claim benefits, legally work or rent a home.
Hitesh first arrived in the UK from India 20 years ago on a six-month visit visa, but after overstaying the time limit, he has tried to appeal refused cases by the Home Office, asking to remain here.
The former hotelier in his 50s came to the country as a young man hoping to “settle well” in the country. He recalls first staying in a hotel in Hounslow on his arrival, and meeting others from the Indian community, looking for work in the area, and quickly made friends.
He found work through the people he met and was provided accommodation.
“Life started from there and after that time passed by, I made a couple of more friends, they started helping me, we were trying to help each other, everyone was in the same situation,” he says.
But his immigration status meant he was forced to rely on cash in hand work, which he says often led to exploitation.
“Whenever people get to know you are a vulnerable person who doesn’t have a work permit, they take advantage of that situation, they get us to do their jobs and they don’t pay the money supposed to be paid to us,” he explains.
“They cheat us because of our inability to go to the right authorities.”
While he was able to rent a “small box room” and secure regular work such as in restaurants and the construction industry, Hitesh eventually was evicted from his accommodation after being owed more than £1,200 for a job he did – but was never paid for – and could not afford the rent.
“You lose out on your accommodation, you lose out on so many things in life,” he adds.
But it was when Hitesh began drinking alcohol, as a woman he was engaged to marry broke off their relationship, that he began sleeping rough he says up to five years ago.
“I started sleeping rough, no proper food, it’s quite unpleasant to say you are homeless, people don’t want to look at you,” he said.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Despite his hardships, including spells in Home Office detention centres, he has always wanted to remain in the UK where he has a support network, while back in India his parents have died and he has no family contacts left.
He currently has a case pending with the Home Office to gain residency on compassionate grounds, after living in the country so long.
Before the pandemic, Hitesh would sleep at night shelters in Ealing and Southall, and as a book lover and Ealing library member, he wanted to apply to volunteer at one of the borough’s libraries last year, which was not possible due to lockdown.
On his time sleeping rough, he added: “Sometimes I’d help people carry their shopping and they’d give me change. I did some work rather than stand in a corner, I can always do something nice.”
And since the Covid crisis he has been housed in hotels in London through the Government’s ‘Everybody In’ scheme.
“Accommodation wise, food wise, it’s the best thing the Government and authorities have done for people like us,” he says.
“But being in an isolated hotel room, sometimes it affects your ability to think right, frustrating and negative thoughts come. I think everybody is going through this for the last few months.”
The initiative has also meant access for Hitesh and other rough sleepers at the emergency accommodation to receive mental health and addiction services support.
And Hitesh has been making the most of the services, such as by getting an assessment done and support for his alcohol intake.
After calls from MPs including Southall MP Virendra Sharma last month to ensure routes for people who are homeless – and without immigration status – get vaccinated, Hitesh has said he is due to get his jab by 15 February.
Hoping for good news of being able to stay in the UK with legal rights, Hitesh dreams one day of getting back into the industry he loves, in hospitality.
He remembers previously working in a grand hotel in India which hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who he saw walk through the lobby.
He also served a prime minister of India throughout his career.
He says, “I’m not very keen on having benefits, I’m a hard working person, I can always work as long as I get paid for it…
“The best thing for working in large hotels, you get to meet so many people from different cultures, different societies, different celebrities, [it’s] definitely something different…
“Since I went homeless, I lost my qualifications, I lost my certificates, I lost my photographs, all gone, my laptop, everything’s gone.”
He added. “I would love to be back into service, I would love to be back in the kitchen… I keep myself updated, I watch lots of cookery programmes on TV, it is very interesting.”
And he hopes when he’s back on track to volunteer to help others who are in the same position as him now, to give thanks and give back, as he says, “When I was in need of help, people came and helped me”.
It is believed that Ealing – London’s third largest borough – has recorded the highest number of rough sleepers with NPRF in the capital and the country, which has led to an ongoing campaign through the pandemic for support for them to be allowed to continue after the crisis.
It is feared without it, these migrant rough sleepers could face a “cliff-edge” of being forced back on the streets without access to support they need, when the exceptional help due to the Covid crisis ends.
In December, data provided by Ealing Council showed 171 people in the borough were being housed in emergency accommodation due to the pandemic, and of those people – 45 per cent – 77 people, had no recourse to public funds.
In a letter to the Government in November, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said it is believed up to 60 per cent of people sleeping rough in London are non-UK nationals with limited access to government support.
He added: “This inability…makes them more vulnerable to destitution and it makes it incredibly difficult for those who have lost their homes and livelihoods, some as a result of Covid-19, to find a path off the streets and into secure accommodation…
“The homelessness crisis can never truly be solved while these inequalities and restrictive hostile policies exist.”
In June 2020, Ealing Council, Hope for Southall Street Homeless and other partners in the borough wrote to Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick urging him to grant rough sleepers with NRPF ‘Covid-19 refugee status’.
They asked for funding for ongoing outreach, substance misuse and housing for those “who need it most”, suspend the right to rent scheme to allow people with NPRF to legally rent a home, and provide additional skills and employment funding to help rough sleepers become “self-sufficient quickly.”
The letter read: “Without question, the hardest group to support under the current framework is those with no recourse to public funds. If it was not for the work of voluntary, charitable, community and faith-based organisations these people would be abandoned without any meaningful way out of the situation they find themselves in – which would be a damning indictment of this country.”
It is understood many of the Government coronavirus measures such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self-employed Income Support Scheme are not considered ‘public funds’ and therefore have been available for people with NPRF status throughout the pandemic.
The Government has handed local authorities £10 million asking them to “redouble their efforts” in housing homeless people throughout the current winter period.
A government spokesperson said: “We have acted decisively to ensure that everyone is supported through the pandemic. Councils are able to provide emergency accommodation for foreign nationals where they are in the UK lawfully, even where they are classified as having no recourse to public funds.
“Since it came into force in 2018, our Homelessness Reduction Act has helped over 270,000 households who were homeless, or at risk of homelessness, into more permanent accommodation. We are also investing over £750 million to help tackle homelessness next year and to end rough sleeping altogether.”
Anahita Hossein-Pour - Local Democracy Reporter