Oxford City Council has restated a promise made last year that Oxford’s homelessness services will not cooperate with the Home Office over immigration enforcement.
Under rules introduced on 1 December the Home Office has the power to deport foreign nationals for sleeping on the street – even for just one night. This includes people legally living in the UK, who could see their permission to stay refused or cancelled.
St Mungo’s delivers homelessness services for the council, and its outreach team OxSPOT helped a third of the 38 people experiencing rough sleeping in Oxford last week who were foreign nationals. The council believes that the potential threat of deportation will deter people from accepting the support and accommodation that has been offered to everyone experiencing rough sleeping since lockdown in March.
The council also believes that the new rules are in direct conflict with its promise to be a city of sanctuary for all of Oxford’s migrant communities.
Many charities – including Crisis, St Mungo’s and Anti-Slavery International – have warned that they will also undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control and risk driving people into domestic abuse, exploitation and modern slavery.
The new rules will not come into force until the Home Office publishes guidance on how they should be applied.
Oxford: city of sanctuary
The council first promised that Oxford homelessness services would never pass on people’s personal data without their explicit consent in July 2019, following reports that the Home Office planned to use charities to target non-UK rough sleepers. Oxford was one of the first councils to make this commitment.
Later that month, councillors unanimously passed a cross party motion reaffirming the council’s commitment to being a city of sanctuary, upholding the principles of dignity and respect for all and signing up to Oxford’s commitment to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. At the same meeting, they appointed Councillor Dr Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini as Oxford’s first migrant champion, helping migrant communities to access services and ensuring their needs are considered and voices heard in council policy.
In November last year, Oxford’s independent advice centres followed the council in pledging non-cooperation with the Home Office’s hostile environment on immigration.
In June, Oxford councillors supported the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ call to help break down the barriers which prevent some of our residents from seeking help, accessing public services and being safe during the pandemic.
Between 2015 and 2018 the council resettled 30 refugee families under the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme, the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme and a community response scheme – more than any other council in the South East.
The council has also been successful in winning two rounds of funding from the government’s Controlling Migration Fund (CMF). Working with education providers and other partners such as Asylum Welcome, Connection Support and Refugee Resource, the council has used CMF funding to support migrants integrating into their new lives in Oxford. This support includes language classes, help finding work, volunteering and mentoring programmes, information resources and taking action against landlords letting illegal ‘beds in sheds’ to migrant communities.
Housing vulnerable homeless people during the pandemic
On 26 March the government issued an ‘everyone in’ direction for English councils to provide emergency housing for rough sleepers and vulnerable homeless people to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In Oxford, this included people sleeping on the streets and those in Floyds Row and the sit up (assessment) service at O’Hanlon House.
The council moved quickly to comply with the direction and secured 121 self-contained hotel and student rooms within two weeks. As the first lockdown eased and leasing agreements with hotels and colleges came to an end in July, the council leased the YHA and Canterbury House to provide 118 rooms of interim housing for another year.
With Aspire, the council has recently been successful in winning £2m in short-term and long-term funding from the Next Steps Accommodation Programme. This will help provide a range of support including interim accommodation, refurbishing properties for move-on accommodation and helping the council to buy flats as part of its emerging Housing First response to rough sleeping.
Housing First means that the council can deliver permanent social housing immediately with the support that people need to prevent a return to the streets. The long-term funding also facilitates the provision of women-only and winter shelter accommodation by Aspire.
So far the council has housed 291 people under ‘everyone in’ arrangements. Of these, 121 have been supported into more permanent housing and this includes a number of people who had been sleeping rough on a long term basis.
“The change to immigration rules leaves people liable to be deported if they sleep rough for just one night. This is not only bad policy because it puts people at risk if they’ve been subject to violence, illegally evicted or lost their job because of the pandemic – it’s also disgusting and immoral.
“Homelessness is not a crime and it should never be treated like one.
“The key to helping people leave the streets behind is establishing trust and the Home Office is undermining the government’s own commitment to end rough sleeping by throwing that away. When we said ‘everyone in’ we meant it, but it seems that for the Home Office the hostile environment still comes first.
“We will not cooperate with this and we will continue to do what we can to help everyone experiencing rough sleeping in Oxford – treating everyone with compassion and respect, regardless of their nationality and whether they have recourse to public funds or not.”
Councillor Mike Rowley, cabinet member for affordable housing and housing the homeless
“It is distressing to see the government continue to pursue hostile environment policies by punishing our migrant residents who have been forced to sleep rough. As the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group says, making rough sleeping grounds for removal of UK non-nationals will put victims of domestic violence and modern slavery at further risk.
“As stated in our pledge as a city of sanctuary, our homelessness services will continue their non-cooperation with the Home Office by refusing to share information for the purposes of immigration enforcement. The pandemic has meant that housing insecurity and homelessness has become a reality for many more of our residents, especially those who struggle to access public services.
“We are proud that hostile environment policies have no place in Oxford and are determined to continue to allay the fears of our most vulnerable migrant residents by reaffirming our pledge of non-cooperation with all aspects of hostile environment policies.”
Councillor Dr Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini, migrant champion
“Along with many others who work in and alongside the sector I am very concerned that the effect of the new immigration rules will be to lead homeless and rough sleeping immigrants not to seek support. Should we be running the risk that fear of being deported will lead those who are already vulnerable being exploited and even becoming victims of modern slavery?”
Jane Cranston, chair of Oxfordshire Homeless Movement and co-signatory of Crisis’ call for government to reconsider the new rules