The East European Peer Navigator Project

Thursday, 8 May 2014 - 9:00am

When the homelessness charity Lift teamed up with the East European Advice Centre (EEAC) to develop a project for East European migrants in London, it wasn’t difficult to see the need they wanted to address: Some 31% of rough sleepers in London were migrants from Eastern Europe. 

Photograph: AP
Photograph: AP

When the homelessness charity Lift teamed up with the East European Advice Centre (EEAC) to develop a project for East European migrants in London, it wasn’t difficult to see the need they wanted to address: Some 31% of rough sleepers in London were migrants from Eastern Europe. However, the kind of service that was needed was only beginning to become apparent. Rough sleepers from East European migrant communities just didn’t have the same profile as other rough sleepers in the UK.

"The more obvious barriers to steady employment faced by many East European migrants - difficulty with language and understanding UK systems - are challenges that peer navigators can help them through."

Lorraine Richardson is Day Services Manager at The Passage, which provides shelter and support services to homeless people and holds specialist sessions for new arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania (A2 countries). Lorraine recalled seeing a spike in service users from East European backgrounds, and the realisation she had when many of them explained why they’d become homeless. She explains: “We couldn’t help them. We’re set up for people who have support needs, but the East Europeans who were rough sleeping for the most part don’t have those support needs.”

Indeed, the 2012 study on Multiple Exclusion Homelessness in the UK shattered many beliefs about why migrants in Britain become homeless. Unlike UK nationals, most homeless migrants don’t have a history of exclusion and support needs, but become homeless for the first time as a result of a ‘trigger’ event (for example, the loss of employment or a relationship breakdown).   

“We thought that by teaming our user engagement expertise with EEAC’s links to East European migrant communities, we could create a really effective new service,” said Atara Fridler, Lift’s Chief Executive.

The result is the East European Peer Navigator Project. Development work on the initiative began in late 2013, and the first volunteer peer navigators will be ready to begin their placements this spring. The project trains East European migrants to become peer navigators who can help other East European migrants who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. By placing peer navigators in mainstream homelessness services, the project is aimed at breaking through the obstacles East European migrants face when they run into difficulties.

Five organisations in west London are teaming up together to deliver the project. In addition to the main partners Lift and EEAC, participants include The Passage, Thames Reach (which runs an outreach service), The Upper Room (a charity working with homeless people, economic migrants and ex-offenders) and West London Churches Homeless Concern (WLCHC) which runs night shelters.

The project is funded by the Homelessness Transition Fund (HTF). Samantha Rennie, Director of the HTF, said: “The Fund was set up to support innovative approaches to tackling rough sleeping, and this project fits the bill. In the current climate, services need to think creatively to meet increasing need, and there is strong evidence that partnership working is the most effective way of delivering critical services. Lift has proactively developed these partnerships based on the specific expertise each agency can bring to work with a vulnerable and often misunderstood client group.”

The East European Peer Navigator Project is in the process of recruiting its first ten peer navigators, some of whom have experience of homelessness, and all of whom have experience of arriving in London as migrants from Eastern Europe. One of the people who recently applied to become a peer navigator is Biljana Kotevska-Kokir, who came to London as a student from East Europe fifteen years ago and who now works in human resources.

Biljana had observed an increase in East European rough sleepers near her home in Hammersmith shortly before she came across a notice in The Guardian recruiting peer navigators for the project. “There aren’t enough agencies [who can] help people when they get into trouble,” she observes. “Homeless East Europeans don’t even know where to look.”

Barbara Drozdowicz, EEAC’s Development Manager, is aware that many East Europeans don’t know where to look for help. The majority of the 1,850 migrants who approached EEAC for help in 2012 were unable to approach mainstream services without support. A peer-led consultation with EEAC’s service users - held the following year - confirmed that service users needed support to access mainstream services and would prefer to do this through a peer navigator service.

The one year pilot will train and support 40 people from East European migrant communities to become peer navigators; and is aimed at benefiting more than 500 migrants from Poland, Lithuania, and other East European countries living in London. 

Atara Fridler hopes that the project will be helpful for a large number of homelessness agencies who will be able to draw on a resource they have never had access to before - a central pool of peer navigators who can support service users on an as-needed basis. Winter shelters, main daytime hubs within the project’s area of operation, and rough sleeping outreach teams will be able to help at-risk and newly homeless clients by linking them with peer navigators. Service users will get help negotiating a potentially stressful process. And agencies and mainstream services will not have to develop and support individual resources.

Many of the project partners believe it has the potential to identify and address some of the reasons East European migrants can be at high risk of homelessness. EEAC has an employment rights project to help East European migrants counter exploitation by employers, while Lift’s employment and housing services have a strong focus on helping people in the local area secure good quality private rented sector housing and paid employment.

The more obvious barriers to steady employment faced by many East European migrants - difficulty with language and understanding UK systems - are challenges that peer navigators can help them through. They can also help them past other obstacles that prevent people from earning enough to maintain a tenancy. “People don’t tend to look outside their immediate circles for work,” observes Barbara Drozdowicz. “The more entrenched they become in an isolated community, the harder it is to find something. It can be difficult to break this cycle.”

In recent years there has been a strong focus on the reconnection services available to homeless migrants. While this may be an option for some, many migrants have lived and worked in the UK for a relatively long time, just barely getting by until a crisis causes them to become homeless.

Migrants included in the 2012 Multiple Exclusion Homelessness study had been in the UK for an average of seven years before becoming homeless, making reconnection an inappropriate option for most.

A10 - THE FACTS

  • The A10 countries that are frequently referred to are the ten countries in Eastern Europe that have acceded to the EU -- Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria (formerly the A8 and A2 countries).
  • There are 370,000 East European migrants living in London (Census 2010). Polish is the second most spoken language in England and in West London boroughs (Ealing) in particular (ONS, Census 2010, 4Mar2013).
  • East European migrants constitute 5% of London’s population, but EE rough sleepers constitute a disproportionate 31% of the street population (CHAIN report Mar-April 2013, Broadway Apr2013).
  • East European Advice Centre dealt with 720 calls in 2012 from people needing help with housing, debt or employment issues (40% of the total calls to the centre);  of these, some 600 (80%) were from people either at risk of losing their home or actually homeless.
  • EEAC’s 2013 survey established that 90% of the East European migrants surveyed were economically active but most were in low-paid jobs; a disproportionate 86% of EE migrants (comparing with 49% London average) live in accommodation rented from private landlords.

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Linda Mannheim

Linda is a writer, armchair activist, New Yorker living in London.

Twitter: @LindaMannheim