Annika Joy (Safe In Scotland), Teresa Piacentini (University of Glasgow), Molly Gilmour (University of Glasgow), Pinar Aksu (Maryhill Integration Network).
As explored in our previous blog post ‘Destitution, hotels, and pandemic responses to asylum housing in Glasgow, Scotland‘, destitution is designed into the asylum process through multiple factors including the delays in receiving the inadequate financial support, lack of support accessing advocacy, rights and advice alongside being repeatedly moved in asylum accommodation which leads to people being unable to establish and maintain support networks. For people refused asylum and deemed by the State to be at the end of the asylum process, the everyday reality of the violent imposition of dispersal to Glasgow, the removal of right to work or benefits, the punitive nature of asylum claim decision-making and no access to homeless support placed people seeking asylum on a deliberate structural cliff edge. For these people, the offer of institutional asylum accommodation is not even on the table.
In the city of Glasgow, one organisation has been working since 2011 to prevent homelessness among this community of people refused asylum. Safe in Scotland, (originally named Glasgow Night Shelter for Destitute Asylum Seekers) was founded as an urgent humanitarian intervention. When the first visible harms of people having no recourse to public funds (NRPF), as a result of the many ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies imposed by the Home Office became apparent in the city, cross-sector homelessness activists identified that people were being prevented from accessing the city’s emergency accommodation for homeless people and were being forced to rough sleep and make other high risk survival decisions. The setting up of a rudimentary night shelter was applied activism, providing somewhere warm and safe for those facing this designed-in destitution. This year-round emergency provision was open from 8pm to 8am, mostly overseen by volunteers, provided simple hot meals and somewhere to stay overnight, with all guests sharing one room. Since it opened its doors, homelessness in the asylum community continued to be largely ignored, and grassroots networks like the night shelter did what they could, along with hosting and other informal arrangements. Meanwhile, the population with NRPF was growing. The Scottish Government’s first Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group (HARSAG) action plan in 2017 identified people with NRPF in the plans to prevent and end homelessness in Scotland although they are constrained by what it could financially support, due to the limitations of devolved powers regarding immigration. While evidence demonstrates to the need to end the use of night shelters due to their lack of dignity and privacy, and the associated harms, we knew that people using Safe in Scotland needed more than a traditional night shelter model could offer and so we sought a more appropriate and sustainable solution to counter the impact of Home Office policies that were forcing more and more people into dangerous survival decisions.
In January 2020, the charity signed a peppercorn (negligible rent) lease agreement with a housing association enabling us to pilot a 24/7 centre with safe, private, dignified accommodation, hot meals, and spaces for socialising. Planning involved working with the asylum community to ensure needs were understood and could be met and building a sustainable funding plan. But by February 2020, the rising threat of Covid-19 was becoming more apparent and when the handwashing guidance came out in early March 2020 the charity knew it needed to move quickly. For Safe in Scotland guests, this seemingly small social change was a huge problem. Already living with trauma, they were experiencing significantly heightened anxiety and their lack of autonomy was sharply apparent. Almost overnight, there was nowhere for our community to go during the day, as frontline services and public buildings were closing and having been consistently at capacity and running a waiting list for the last year, we also knew there were many more people needing accommodation. #StayatHome and stay safe wasn’t an option: you can’t wash your hands when public spaces are closed. You can’t distance in a dormitory. You can’t stay at home if the place you stay is closed during the day.
With “lockdown” imminent, Safe in Scotland needed to act quickly.Within a matter of days, the charity found 25 hotel rooms, quickly expanding what we could offer to two full floors with 48 guests and a fully operational support hub. Guests included people from a waiting list and those in city’s Winter Night Shelter which closed abruptly, as well as others who had previously been forced to make what can best be described as survival decisions. And with casual spaces and informal accommodation locked down, this once invisible population had become visible and with this, support could be offered. With the public health legislation in place, the Scottish Government was able to help fund what we thought would be a specialist, but short-term, intervention. But this intervention was far from short-term. From 23rd March until 1st December 2020, Safe in Scotland accommodated and supported 177 people in the asylum process who were considered Appeals Rights Exhausted and who presented as homeless with no recourse to public funds. They would otherwise have been forced into rough sleeping and make other survival decisions as they are prohibited from accessing homelessness services delivered using public funds. Our response took an advocacy-led and rights-based model, working with each person to apply for covid -only s4 support, provided by the State on the basis of the public health risks associated with the pandemic, and making the best of the accommodation we were able to access. Aware of the developing criticism of the use of hotels to accommodate homeless people and the Home Office’s own removal of asylum seekers from community housing and placing in adequate, unsupported hotels, Safe in Scotland adopted a radical approach. Going significantly beyond the basic accommodation that was provided by MEARS, the Home Offices’ main housing provider, in August 2020, Safe in Scotland was able to open its own individual accommodation with enough funding for an initial one-year pilot. This helped ensure that people only had to stay in the hotel for as short a time as possible. Safe in Scotland provided a 24/7 holistic service that helped connect our guests with legal and mental health services. Much of this was made available online as other services shut their city centre offices in line with Covid-19 guidance, which meant we needed to ensure everyone had a smartphone, and that there were chrome books on site. This meant good, secure Wi-Fi was imperative, and that also provided an opportunity for guests to get online and talk to friends and family. The funding for this crisis response ended in December 2020.
Impact of Safe in Scotland: secure refuge helping people secure refugee status
Since March 2020, almost 300 people have stayed with Safe in Scotland, the majority moving back onto Home Office support while a fresh claim is processed. Safe in Scotland can now accommodate 17 guests where they can immediately access dignified private accommodation; time, space, and personalised support to explore their rights; and access to services to improve their wellbeing. We have become a unique front-line organisation working to end asylum-related destitution. Even at the small scale at which the charity operates, it is Scotland’s main provider of emergency and temporary accommodation to our community, supporting over a hundred people each year, all of whom would otherwise be forced into rough sleeping and other survival decisions as they are prohibited from accessing homelessness services delivered using public funds. Very significantly, most Safe in Scotland guests are, after support, able to re-enter the asylum system and from April 2021 to March 2022, the most common outcome for our guests was Home Office support under Section 4. No guests have received any formal/final refusal; those who remain with us have casework prepping a fresh claim or a decision pending after making submissions to the fresh claim unit. This indicates that there is eventually a remarkably high success rate for our guests re-entering the asylum system once support, time and space has been available to gather new evidence and improve their wellbeing and resilience to cope with the process. While Safe in Scotland does not track the eventual outcome for their guests, they do hear news from caseworkers or indeed the guest when there is a successful outcome, for example a grant of indefinite leave to remain. The strongest indicator they have, however, is that over the last year no guests have been referred back to Safe in Scotland, having exhausted the asylum process again. This suggests, as expected, that while guests are initially perceived as “rights exhausted” they do have substantive fresh claims that the Home Office is willing to consider.
Access to safe and secure housing is central to a dignified life. Housing is also central to settlement and making a place feel like home. For people in the asylum process, housing and the ever-present threat of homelessness through designed-in destitution are issues that have long predated the pandemic and will exist long after. Indeed, one of the most striking things about lockdown experiences for refugees and those in the asylum system is that they are marked in many ways by continuities which further reduce the already limited opportunities for participation in local life. But most significantly we also know from Safe in Scotland’s work that secure refuge helps people secure refugee status and that embeddedness in community networks, and advocacy-led approaches to support are central to rights-based work.
As advocates of rights-based approaches to asylum support, our ever-present concern is that now the Home Office and local authorities are no longer obliged to accommodate those that the public health imperative forces them to support, there will be a sharp upswing in rough sleeping and a return to survival decisions among our community. Our hope lies in our work as part of Fair Way Scotland, a national model for dignified housing and support for people considered appeals rights exhausted. Hope also lies with a Scottish Government commitment at a policy level to an anti-destitution strategy to prevent and mitigate homelessness among those with no recourse to public funds.
Can this work?
At the time of writing, the use of hotel detention has been extended across Scotland and the UK, despite it being presented as an emergency measure by the Home Office and ongoing campaigns to end its use. Street homelessness has been temporarily eradicated by the unexpected opportunism of a pandemic alongside the achievements of charities and activists. Recent research suggests that Glasgow has made considerable progress in driving down city centre rough sleeping by 75%. This is to be commended, but there is still no longer-term funded plan to sustain this transformation and the onus to avert the homelessness crisis sits squarely with charities, such as a Safe in Scotland. The outlook remains bleak and raises a further question: Can we hope for alternatives to the regressive destitution and impoverishment of people seeking refuge? We believe we can. Through coherent partnerships and referral mechanisms between third sector organisations and public bodies, along with modest funding, the Safe in Scotland pandemic response demonstrated how it is possible to end the use of night shelters. This is significant as this was achieved with population who are usually prohibited from accessing services commissioned using public funds and demonstrated most importantly – once everyone has somewhere safe to stay, progress on accessing rights, and resolving complex immigration cases, is a lot more achievable.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.