Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Homelessness and Hope Commission

Nottingham Citizens for Sanctuary have launched a commission into the accommodation needs of people seeking sanctuary in Nottingham. The project, called “Homelessness and Hope”, was outlined at Friends Meeting House this week in an event attended by representatives from a number of organisations including local government, the UK borders agency (UKBA) and charities working in this field.

In addition to Nottingham Citizens for Sanctuary, the other driving forces behind the project are the Nottingham and Nottingham Refugee Forum, British Red Cross, Himmah, Faith Action on Poverty and Homelessness and the Church of England.

The commission will focus on the situation faced by asylum seekers and refugees, particularly those who have no recourse to public funds and aims to report by the end of June, with “comprehensive and practical recommendations” to the City Council, UKBA and G4S (who have the contract for asylum seeker accommodation in the Midlands).

The need for the commission was amply illustrated by the testimonies of a number of people who had spent time in the UKBA system. In particular it was hard to hear the stories of parents whose children had never had a bed they could call their own, or had slept on the floor of a caravan so that they could stay in Nottingham to sit their exams.

The Rev Karen Rooms who began the proceedings, recognised that, economically, these were “tough times” and emphasised that the project wanted to get “value for money for taxpayers” and also “common sense solutions that will work for everyone”.

Liz McGuirk, from Citizens for Sanctuary talked of the need to ensure that the commission took advantage of best practice that had been developed elsewhere in the country, in particular mentioning projects in Manchester and Leeds that were worth studying. She also described how the team wished to work with other organisations, including the G4S and UKBA in developing the final report.

Sajid Muhammed, from Himmah, related the story of an elderly gentleman called Ahmed who had been tortured in his country of origin and was seeking sanctuary in Nottingham. Ahmed had not been able to provide the correct documentation so the Home Office had rejected his application and he had since been living rough (at the time he was staying in a shed). Sajid wondered “how this could happen in our city”.

A number of speakers, including the YMCA and UKBA recognised that the sudden removal of much welfare support when a person takes up paid work, even at the minimum wage, makes this change very difficult for people and that some kind of phased transition would be a helpful step forward.

Gail Adams, from UKBA expressed support for the project and commented that the UKBA had “moved a long way in the last three to four years”, pointing out that the long backlogs of cases that were usual have now largely been eliminated. She committed to providing information to the project and to meeting with the project organisers to discuss its findings after its publication and urged the commission to “be specific about what is wrong” so that problems can be fixed.

Andrew Hall, who works in the field of social health, described how substandard accommodation has a significant adverse effect on health, with resulting illnesses such as respiratory complaints costing the NHS some £1.5 - £2.5billion per year. He also commented on the strong correlation between poverty and the prevalence of ailments associated with poor accommodation.

Jon Collins, leader of the city council, pointed out that the council had to work within a legal framework but added that “some aspects of it that are degrading and sometimes gratuitously so”. He also pointed out that homelessness is an issue for a number of communities in the city and that, currently, there simply was not enough social housing available to meet demand.

UPDATE : 12 June 12
BFTF has recently received permission to add one of the, very moving, accounts given by the asylum seekers. The first accounr is from Yusuf, who is a refugee from Dafur in Sudan. The second if from Amina and Saleem, a couple from North Africa. All names have been changed.

Yusuf's testimony
My name is Yusuf and I come from Darfur in the Sudan.

When I was given status in 2010 I had to leave my NASS accommodation 3 weeks later. I had lived in NASS accommodation for 6 years and had a TV, small fridge, DVDs and my computer which I had to throw away because I had nowhere to store them.

Housing Aid told me that they only give accommodation to people who are sick or disabled. For one month I was homeless. With no support I had to sleep outside: I tried to sleep in the mosque and was refused, I slept in a park, under a bridge outside the Broadmarsh Centre or spent all night sitting in the bus station.There was nowhere for me to wash my face and I had to wait till the shops opened before I could go to the toilet. There was nowhere for me to take a shower for the first two weeks, so that my clothes began to smell.

I didn't know where I could get any money. All I had was the money I borrowed from a friend, so for the whole month all I had to eat was dry bread and chips, except for the few days when the Refugee Forum fed me.

What I missed most was not being warm. I was lucky that it did not rain a lot.

Why, I asked myself, having finally got status, am I on the streets?

I often felt degraded and that I was nothing. I also suffered from nightmares.

Amina and Saleem's testimony
AMINA: "Good evening, my name is Amina and this is my husband Saleem and our two twin daughters. They're two and a half. In 2001 my husband and I were living in (a North African country), he was working as a security guard. One evening he caught a gang of thieves stealing from the warehouse. He caught them and called the police. To his relief they arrived quickly. They got out their cars and came over to my husband who they put in handcuffs and bundled into the back of the van.

The criminals had connections that hard working families like ours didn't. My husband was taken away and thrown in a cell while the criminals went free. Needless to say that night my husband didn't come home. I stayed up all night, I stayed up for the following four nights while my husband rotted in a cell. He was released on bail and we fled. He'd made enemies and was wanted. In 2002 we arrived, terrified of being sent back and not knowing the law we didn't claim asylum. We came to Nottingham and moved into a one bedroom apartment rented by Saleem's brother and his wife.

In 2004 my husband was caught without a visa and detained. He was released and on the advice of his solicitor went to claim asylum."

SALEEEM: "I will never forget that interview. I sat down opposite a man who went on to abuse me, call me a liar, aggressively tell me that I was a cheat and had come here to get my hands on benefits. I've worked my whole life, I'm an honest man. It's because I'm honest that I was forced to flee my country. With all this intimidation I left the office, without having completed an asylum claim. I returned to Nottingham and began regularly reporting.

Again I was detained, this time I made an asylum application only for it to be rejected within 72 hours. 72 hours? They made this decision about me, about my life, about the fear I live in of returning to (North African country) in 72 hours. I appealed and was released and once again returned to Nottingham."

AMINA: "Two years went by. By this time we had been living in Britain with my husband's brother for seven long years. I was getting older and with no idea how many more years the Home Office would make us wait for a decision on the appeal. I got pregnant and in 2009 our two twin girls were born. They are my joy and my whole world. Together with our two twins we returned to my brother in law's one bedroom apartment where he, his wife, and their daughter were also living. There were now 7 of us in a one bedroom apartment. It was then, that through the post we learned that our appeal had been rejected. We were considering what to do when we received another letter from the Home Office inviting us to claim legacy and so we did in June 2010 and lodged an application for NASS support. Twelve months went by. My daughters took their first steps. They spoke their first words. All in a run down one bedroom apartment together with 5 other people.

By May 2011 my brother in law had to move. He'd supported us for 9 years in that terribly overcrowded one bed apartment. He'd fed, clothed, supported and sheltered us but he had to leave the city. We received notice that our legacy claim had somehow been refused the same week we were turned out onto the street, homeless. Can you imagine what it's like to take your two twins into the street while your husband runs down streets looking for someone he knows to ask for shelter? Social services had been to see us the week before. She knew we were about to be left on the street and refused to help us.

Fortunately a friend was able to shelter us for a time. A lawyer in London suggested we make a Human Rights claim and filed it in October. Having now had several other opinions it turns this was a total waste of time. New evidence of the consequences we face in (North African Country) had emerged and we should have been helped to make a fresh claim, instead this cowboy lawyer led us down the wrong path. I am relieved to say we have now, finally after 9 years in this country, been given access to legal aid with a reputable solicitor who is helping us prepare a fresh claim.

I you all to understand what we have been through, particularly in the last year. Since May 2011 we have moved ten times. Always on the edge of homelessness. A single phone call away. We spent two months living in a friend's place, we had four hours notice when we had to leave. I was at the refugee forum in the city centre when I got the call from my husband. I had no money for the bus and I remember running home crying and screaming because I had no place to take my daughters. One of my girls came down with a fever, she was so distressed we thought she'd stopped breathing. When the ambulance came to collect her I had to give my other daughter to a friend for the night as we had no place to go. Imagine that. Imagine having to give one of your children to someone else's care. We have had to beg everyone we know, one time after we'd been made homeless our solicitor's friend sheltered us for the night. Only on one occasion, having already been made homeless 6 times with two young girls did Social Services help us. They gave us 7 nights in a Bed and Breakfast. I can tell you, we were grateful for the bed but we got no breakfast. At the end of that stay we were turned out on the street, I waited in the cold with my daughters while once again my husband ran around the streets of Nottingham asking anyone he could find to shelter us for the night. For two years we have been in this state, while the border agency holds our applications, with no support whatsoever except for those seven days and nights. My twins have never slept in their own beds. Their whole lives all four of us have had to share a bed. Sometimes a single."

One of the team at Notts Refugee Forum mentioned a more positive incident relating to Amina:

"I recently met up with Amina and was horrified to see that, only having a single push chair, she had carried the other 2.5 year old twin across town. I remembered a woman who came to the Launch offering to help and so I rang her and asked her to try and locate a twin pushchair. She offered to pay for it if she found one. She did find one a day or so later and with money from another source Amina was able to purchase the twin pushchair."

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