Homeless person's tent and belongings

What were the limitations of the government’s response to homelessness during COVID-19, and how did these limitations impact migrants in receipt of support?

In our previous blog post, we introduced initial findings from our research project. These findings have pointed to the life-changing impact for migrants with no access to statutory support of the ‘Everyone In’ government response to homelessness during COVID-19.

Whilst the suspension of eligibility criteria in relation to immigration status meant that migrants previously ineligible were offered unprecedented statutory support in securing somewhere safe to stay, ‘Everyone In’ was not simply a celebratory moment. Instead, just as it produced new opportunities for non-UK nationals experiencing homelessness, it also reproduced various inequalities in support provisions. 

'Everyone In': a temporary response 

First and foremost, it is crucial to problematise the temporary nature of the ‘Everyone In’ response, and the lack of attention to what would become of migrants in receipt of emergency accommodation once eligibility criteria were reintroduced.

Indeed, as the statutory framework at the level of legislative power and policy remained unchanged throughout the pandemic, local authorities were left to make accommodation decisions on the basis of available funding and their ad hoc interpretation of the legislation. This led to inconsistencies across local authorities as to the length and breadth of emergency accommodation provisions. 

A swift return to 'normal'

In numerous cases eligibility criteria were swiftly brought back into support provision at the end of the first lockdown. This meant that whilst UK-nationals were allowed to stay in the emergency accommodation provided, the majority of migrants without access to statutory support were forced to leave.

One support worker captures just how quickly the positive impact of ‘Everyone In’ appeared to be reversed:

And what was interesting is when lockdown lifted how quickly the streets went back to normal for the migrants, so I think that’s what maybe we haven't captured here, so when we talk about the initial 'Everyone In', that’s only for a few months and then come July, the world went back to normal…

Staff, X001

Indeed, our research – conducted across three cities in England – has shown that support workers spent much of the ‘Everyone In’ initiative fearful of what would happen to the migrants in their care who were not able to access statutory support once lockdown ended: 

Housing people is really important, to offer a level of stability. But if you offer somebody stability for three months, that can actually be more traumatising than them being on the streets. Because on the street, they know where they are, they know where they’re going to be, they know the routines for their day to an extent. I know bad things can happen on the street, but people suffer when they’re living in temporary situations. So if I, for example, said [to you], you’re going [somewhere] tomorrow, you’re going to be there for an undecided amount of time and maybe you’ll get chucked out after three days, maybe you won’t. What kind of… how are you supposed to rebuild your life in those conditions?

Staff, Y001

As this support worker underscores, the abrupt reintroduction of eligibility criteria in relation to immigration status reaffirmed racialised inequalities in statutory homelessness support. Whilst offering migrants temporary support proved life-changing for those who were able to secure more permanent accommodation, for others it led to fresh trauma in their sudden return to the streets. 

Resolving immigration statuses: a race against time for support workers 

Whether a migrant was able to secure permanent housing through ‘Everyone In’ depended on the ability of support workers to resolve their immigration status ahead of eviction deadlines. Whilst for some organisations immigration support had been part of their provision prior to COVID-19, for others this was entirely uncharted territory. 

One support worker interviewed described how, up until the pandemic, she had only been working in homelessness support as a casual volunteer, but was now required to deal with complex cases of unresolved immigration status for which she felt wholly unprepared:

I mean, I was given these two clients and told I had to try and sort out their settled status and this and this and this. You may as well have been talking in a foreign language, ‘cause it didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t understand, even when I was given the case, ‘cause I’d never worked with any migrants before. I didn’t know the difference between pre-settled and settled status. I didn’t know they had to apply for this. I didn’t know any of this. So, I’ve had to learn and try and do the best I can.

Staff, Z007

The ability to work out what was needed was a matter of housing or homelessness for some migrant service users, and support workers were well aware of the immense responsibility on their shoulders. This led to traumatic emotional experiences for support workers and migrants alike: 

It must be terrifying… Being him. ‘Cause he knows. He knows… He’s got a calendar in his room with the date on.

Staff, Z007

I suppose, my saddest (thing is)… if their eligibility isn’t resolved, we’re not immigration providers, we can’t overturn a Home Office decision, if somebody’s liable for deportation, or has had three failed asylum cases. What do we do then?

Staff, X006

An increase in local government surveillance 

Just as the suspension of eligibility criteria led to new communities of service users in homelessness support organisations, ‘Everyone In’ also necessitated closer working relationships with local governments in the management of emergency accommodation.

This led to various local authority interventions with the goal of overseeing how ‘Everyone In’ funding was being put to use. In the case of one organisation, this led to a private security presence at accommodation blocks, which support workers found encroaching and problematic: 

The security is hired by the [local authority]. We never had security prior to the hotels, it was something the [local authority] insisted on. We found it insulting actually, you know, we’ve only been doing this for years, and in the night beds too – the most volatile environment you can work in… We’re pushing to have the security gone, it’s just too many cooks.

Staff, Z011

In addition to private security the local authority placed conditions on accommodation provided by the scheme, leading to evictions that the organisation itself had no power to overturn, and which put service users at risk:

One guy has been evicted… when I started there was this guy, he's a Polish guy I think, he was evicted for obviously like breaking any of the terms, and then he was evicted, then ended up in a street, had a heart attack, went to hospital and died.

Staff, Z005

What future for migrants? 

Support services across the country hoped that ‘Everyone In’ would lead to long-term change in government funding and policy, with the temporary suspension of eligibility criteria highlighting the crisis of migrant homelessness in the UK. However, the return to ‘normal’ has also meant a return to the immigration policies that have for so long blocked migrants from accessing support. 

For now, it appears that the temporary solution of ‘Everyone In’ will not lead to permanent change for the vast majority of migrants, leaving many once again vulnerable to homelessness. 

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.

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