To help or not to help: uncertain support for homeless migrants

Friday, 21 February 2014 - 9:47am

There is understandable confusion around the support available to homeless migrants. Why has this happened and what can we do about it?

Photograph: ozumel (Flickr)
Photograph: ozumel (Flickr)

“The Roma Invasion of Paris…next stop Britain?” read a Sunday Telegraph headline last October. The accompanying photograph showed two men, Balaci and Marius, posing with suitcases with the implied intent of hopping straight on the next Eurostar to St Pancras. “Romanian migrants are the scourge of Paris,” the article continued, “sleeping rough, begging and blamed for rising crime. Is this what awaits Britain when they start crossing the Channel?”

Headlines like this set the tone for a wave of media coverage in the run-up to Bulgaria and Romania’s entry into the European Union at the beginning of the year, with many references to the wave of migrant workers who came to Britain in 2004 when 10 new countries joined the EU.

Flood or trickle?

That influx led to dramatic changes in the shape of homelessness in many areas. The percentage of people from those countries sleeping rough in London increased from less than 1% in 2003 to more than 20% a few years later. The headlines implied the same could happen in 2014.

Things looked very different in 2004. Back then we were only one of a handful of countries that allowed people from these countries to work unrestricted. Fast forward to 2014 and the UK economy is no longer booming – and crucially Bulgarians and Romanians have the same work rights anywhere in the EU.

The knock-on effect

But while predictions of high numbers migrating to the UK have yet come to pass the Government did announce a set of measures that have led to a great deal of confusion for many of our members.

In its attempt to address public “widespread and understandable concern over people coming to the UK to access benefits” the government attempted to remove what some people perceive as pull factors that might make people want to come to the UK. These measures don’t just concern Romanians and Bulgarians. Some apply to all EEA citizens coming to the UK, some cover wider groups of migrants.

Our latest research indicates that, outside London, 20% of those found sleeping rough are from EEA countries. So any changes could affect a significant number of individuals.  The challenge for our members is that since these measures were triggered to address public concerns, much of the detail today is still quite sketchy.

Benefit confusion

We’ve been told by the Department of Work and Pensions that there will be a clampdown on European migrants’ entitlements to Jobseekers Allowance and Housing Benefit – but it’s unclear what is new, what has been modified and what is just clarification of existing arrangements.

We have been told that “EEA jobseekers…will be unable to access Job Seekers Allowance until they have been living in the UK (or the Common Travel Area) for three months.” We have also been told that “new EEA jobseekers will no longer be able to access Housing Benefit if they are claiming income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance.”

On the face of it, the first policy seems to negate the need for the second one. Or does it? There isn’t enough detail to say. Then we are told that EEA migrants can “only receive JSA for six months unless they can provide compelling evidence that they have a Genuine Prospect of Work.”

And more confusion

Other changes coming in will further interfere with the ability of homelessness agencies and their partners to work with people sleeping rough. The Department of Health have said there can be no primary health care for many non-European migrants who have not paid a levy. But that raises the question of exactly what a healthcare professional working on the streets is supposed to do with individuals who cannot prove their immigration status.

And then there’s the Prime Minister’s statement in the Financial Times: “If people are not here to work – if they are begging or sleeping rough – they will be removed. They will then be barred from re-entry for 12 months.” Details of how this will be put into practice are sketchy, but there’s a real risk that such language will make migrant rough sleepers more likely to remain invisible.

To help or not to help

As a result of this confusion, we’re starting to see homelessness projects being put in a difficult position in terms of judging what they can offer to clients – perhaps even removing key routes out of rough sleeping for some people.

Only last week I spoke to a homelessness agency which supports Eastern European migrants. They don’t know what to tell their clients about how these changes will work in practice.

The Telegraph headline raised concerns about potential increases in rough sleeping, begging and crime. My worry is that if agencies cannot give informed advice, that predicted increase could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, what do we know? 

Homelessness agencies need to be able to help people – they need to know what support they can offer them. And we need to avoid putting up barriers to help that only end up increasing the population of EEA migrants for whom sleeping rough becomes a way of life.

At Homeless Link we’ll continue to press the Government for clarification on these points. In the meantime be sure to use our best practice guidance on supporting homeless migrants – Working With EEA MigrantsEntitlements of EEA Nationals and Assessment and Reconnection Toolkit.