No-one should be punished for being homeless or destitute

Ruth Jacob, Senior Policy Officer

But new immigration rules published last week would do exactly that. Under the new rules, which come into force on 1 December this year, rough sleeping will become grounds for refusing or cancelling someone’s right to remain in the UK.

This means that people who have lost their jobs, or who need support to access housing, could now face deportation.

While the UK Government has emphasised that this policy will only be used sparingly where people have refused other support, it is not as clear cut as this.

Firstly, there is nothing in the rules themselves that sets this out. The definition of rough sleeping is concerningly broad, suggesting it would be relatively easy for someone to find themselves in breach of them. This could, for example, affect someone whose immigration status means they have a right to be in the UK but who is illegally evicted from a private tenancy. As well as being forced to spend a night sleeping rough, they could suddenly face being forced to leave the country.

Secondly, we know that in most cases people who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status have little or no access to support in the first place. This means they are at greater risk of being forced into rough sleeping if they are unable to work or lose their jobs. Often the only support offered to people in this situation is a reconnection back to their country of origin, regardless of whether this is what they want or if it is even safe for them to return.

Many people who have moved to the UK have built their lives here – they have worked, raised their children and are a part of their local community. Yet because of our immigration system, they are denied help with the most basic human needs. If they lose their job or get sick and cannot work, they won’t be allowed access to support with housing costs. This sudden increase in pressure can push them over the brink and into homelessness. Given we’re in the midst of a pandemic that is putting huge and sudden pressure on people’s finances, many people will be facing this reality.

The new immigration rules penalise people in this situation and push them further from any limited support that might be available to them at the very point they need it most. This leaves people vulnerable to exploitation and at risk of being becoming victims of modern slavery because they feel they have nowhere else to turn.

This will make the work of outreach teams trying to support people sleeping rough much harder, as people fear engaging with services could lead to arrest, detention and deportation.

We’ve seen the tragic consequences of this before.

This is not the first time the UK Government has used the immigration system in this way to target people sleeping rough. Previous Home Office guidance which resulted in the detention and deportation of European national rough sleepers was ruled unlawful by the High Court in December 2017. This policy caused many European nationals, many of whom had lived here for years and were actively engaging with our services and looking for a job, to be wrongfully detained and removed from the UK.

The guidance stated that it would be disproportionate to remove a rough sleeper who is not engaged in criminal behaviour and who is actively looking for accommodation – yet this was exactly what happened. We frequently saw examples where no account was taken of the reasons people might be in the UK to start with, how long people have lived here, or whether it was even safe for someone to return to their country of origin.

We can end rough sleeping with the right support in place for people.

When the pandemic hit in March governments across Great Britain made the decision to provide support for people sleeping rough based on need alone through the Everyone In scheme and equivalents in Wales and Scotland. This meant that many people who would ordinarily have been excluded from essential support that would help them to move out of homelessness were able to access this for the first time.

Going forward we can decide to learn from the successes of the pandemic response, including the Everyone In scheme. Governments can redesign the system so that everyone is treated humanely and with dignity, and can get essential support if they need it.

We want to work with the UK Government to build on this approach. We have reached out to Ministers and urge the UK Government to listen to the people who will be affected by these new rules and to the organisations who support people who are pushed into homelessness, wherever they may be originally from.

Homelessness can be ended. But we need to move past policies that punish people who are struggling and instead ensure people receive help and support when they need it most.

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