By Alastair Murray

This blog post is an attempt to explore the work and role of homelessness services with migrant rough sleepers, especially whether or not there should be information sharing with Home Office immigration enforcement teams.

 My starting point on this, as for any discussion about homelessness, is that everyone should have access to a home which meets their needs, this has been the key motivator for Housing Justice since its conception. Without an affordable and secure home no one can truly flourish or participate in community and society. So if someone is street homeless it is not simply a personal tragedy but a challenge to us all as a society, even a scandal.[1] How have we, collectively, failed this person? Why aren’t they getting the help they so clearly need?


Homelessness is of course not only about not having a roof over one’s head. It is often a sign of alienation from self and society, and poor mental health or addiction may be symptoms or consequences of this alienation.


An additional barrier for the roughly 40% of rough sleepers from the EU[2] is the restricted right to access UK benefits upon which a hostel bed and other help is often contingent. Tighter eligibility criteria were introduced in May 2016 i.e. before the Brexit vote, but putting the UK more or less in line with the social security systems of fellow EU member states.


Now setting these societal and personal obstacles against the biggest structural issue of all, the desperate shortage of truly affordable housing for anyone on low or even ordinary incomes and its no surprise that street homelessness is on the rise.


I have been in this field of work for more than 2 decades and have a number of friends who work in outreach teams, day centres and other services. They try really hard with all the resources they have and in spite of the bureaucratic and other obstacles to help homeless people off the streets. And my way of seeing this is that if it was your or my family member or close friend living in a doorway or in a derelict garage, we would surely want that help to be provided.  Views may differ on this but personally I think this help should be provided assertively i.e. regularly and often. And if that person is reluctant or unwilling for whatever reason to come in from the cold how would we feel about their right or – loaded term I know - choice to stay homeless, even to the point of possibly dying on the street?


In 2009 we attempted to focus debate on this issue with a series of talks at Bloomsbury Baptist Church which were subsequently written up and published by HJ as “Compassion vs Coercion”.  (Available from the website, if it can be uploaded?) At that time the hot potato issue was Operation Poncho, the practice of “hot washing” of doorways in which rough sleepers bedded down. Some argued then, and I know will argue the same today, that leaving someone to sleep or possibly die in a doorway is not a compassionate response. Therefore any means that are used to discourage people from doing this are justified, according to this argument, including waking people at 2.00 every morning to wash down their sleeping places.


Housing Justice opposed this harder line treatment or, as we saw it, infringement of the rights of rough sleepers. This led on to the work we did to produce the Rights Guide for Rough Sleepers[3] in partnership with Liberty, The Pavement, Z2K and others. We felt it was important to help street homeless people know their rights. Limited though these rights are they must at least include being treated fairly and as a human being, rather than as an administrative problem or public health nuisance. For us it was fundamentally a question of human dignity, as well as indicating a need to improve the help on offer to those who were staying on the streets. This would still be our response today.


The current debate over whether homelessness services should work hand in hand with Home Office enforcement teams to forcibly detain rough sleepers and then remove them to their home countries touches on similar territory. Those who espouse a rights based approach will disagree with those who argue from a pragmatic perspective about the necessity of saving lives. Both arguments have some validity, and there is compassion on both sides also.


But in this case some of the Home Office immigration team practices which are being reported must concern us. EU citizens are being required to hand over their ID document even when it is needed for work, or to open a bank account or get a tenancy. The offer is of “voluntary” return to the home country but detaining people if they don’t take up the offer makes it actually coercion doesn’t it?


Friends who work in asylum and immigration advice and support services have been all too familiar with shoddy practice and unaccountable decision making from the Home Office for decades, but now this seems to be extending to people from the EU. These practices have to be challenged, and indeed I understand that there are test cases currently being prepared by the Aire centre[4]


Should frontline homeliness services be working so cooperatively with the Home Office to detain and remove EU citizens? This is a difficult subject, but what will make for better outcomes will be if key services involved keep listening, debating and keep up the dialogue which homeless services are so good at maintaining.


Alastair Murray co-ordinates London development work for Housing Justice

Further reading


Charities referring rough sleepers to immigration enforcement teams Guardian 07/03/17


Homelessness charities and local authorities complicit in detention and deportation of EU nationals rough sleeping. North east London Migrant Action campaign

[1] Homelessness: a Fact and a Scandal. Originally published 1990 reissued 2016


[2] See GLA CHAIN Statistics on rough sleeping in London