Oxford City Council is backing a call from homelessness and human rights charities for the government to scrap rules that could make rough sleeping grounds for removal from the UK.
The council has also renewed a pledge originally made in 2019 that Oxford’s homelessness services will not cooperate with the Home Office over immigration enforcement.
Removal from the UK
Under guidance introduced last month, the Home Office may remove foreign nationals experiencing rough sleeping if they refuse offers of support and engage in persistent antisocial behaviour. This includes people living legally in the UK, who could see their permission to stay refused or cancelled.
A joint statement by 60 charities – including Crisis, Shelter and St Mungo’s – condemned the new guidance as “inhumane” and said that it could put vulnerable people experiencing homelessness at greater risk of exploitation and modern slavery.
The council believes that any threat of removal will deter people from accepting the support that has been offered to everyone experiencing rough sleeping in Oxford since the outbreak of the pandemic.
St Mungo’s delivers homelessness services for the council, and its outreach team OxSPOT is currently supporting nine people experiencing rough sleeping and 114 people in interim housing. While nobody now sleeping rough is a foreign national, more than a third (42 people) of those in interim housing could potentially face removal in the event of a return to the streets.
The council also believes that the new guidance is in direct conflict with its promise to be a city of sanctuary for all of Oxford’s migrant communities.
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 2019, Oxford’s independent advice centres followed the council in pledging non-cooperation with the Home Office’s hostile environment on immigration.
In June last year, 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
As the pandemic struck last March, the government issued an ‘everyone in’ direction for English councils to provide emergency housing for vulnerable homeless people, including those living in shared hostel spaces. The council moved quickly to comply and secured 121 self-contained hotel and student rooms within two weeks. As the first lockdown eased and temporary agreements with hotels and colleges came to an end in July, the council leased two blocks to provide 118 rooms of interim housing for another year.
Interim housing is a bridge from emergency accommodation and the streets, providing a breathing space for people to get the support they need to leave homelessness behind. So far the council has housed 355 people under ‘everyone in’ arrangements. Of these, 187 have been supported into more permanent housing and this includes a number of people who had been sleeping rough on a long term basis.
With Aspire, the council has been successful in winning £2m in short-term and medium-term funding from the Next Steps Accommodation Programme. This is helping to provide a range of support, including interim housing and the development of longer term ‘housing led’ options in the next few years.
In the UK, homeless people have generally moved from the streets to independent living in stages. Housing led approaches like Housing First instead say that people should be offered permanent housing immediately and without preconditions like engaging with treatment services.
The Housing First approach was first used in New York by the Pathways to Housing programme in 1992. It has since been widely adopted across the USA and also plays a significant role in preventing homelessness in Canada, Finland and Denmark.
Evaluation of initiatives like Pathways to Housing programme suggest that Housing First can help up to four fifths of former rough sleepers while also reducing pressure on other public services.
The council is working with Oxfordshire County Council and Oxfordshire’s district councils, NHS partners and Crisis to establish a joint strategy for reducing rough sleeping. This will deliver housing led services across Oxfordshire from April 2022.
“Homelessness is not a crime and it should never be treated like one. Making people liable for removal from the UK because they are sleeping rough effectively criminalises them, it puts them at greater risk of exploitation and modern slavery, and it undermines all our work to help them off the streets.
“The pandemic has given us a unique opportunity to engage with people experiencing rough sleeping and to offer them the support they need to leave homelessness behind. The key to this is establishing trust and the new immigration rules directly contradict the government’s own commitment to end rough sleeping by throwing that away – they should be scrapped.
“We believe that nobody should have to sleep rough in Oxford. We are also committed to being a city of sanctuary for all of our migrant communities.
“This is why we remain opposed to the hostile environment on immigration. We will not pass on people’s personal data without their explicit consent and we will not cooperate with the Home Office on immigration enforcement for people experiencing rough sleeping.”
Councillor Susan Brown, Leader of Oxford City Council
“We stand with our partners across the homelessness and migration sector in raising concerns about this proposed policy. Our outreach teams work hard alongside Oxford City Council to support people who need help to get off the streets. This policy will only increase distrust of homeless interventions and is likely to drive people with legitimate rights to remain away from essential services and in some cases effectively criminalise rough sleeping. Everybody deserves a place to call home and we will continue to work people to find suitable accommodation.”
Matt Rudd, Regional Head at St Mungo’s
“I find it hard to support the concept of any legislation that that could make rough sleeping grounds for removal from the UK. Driving the problem of rough sleeping underground would make already vulnerable people even more vulnerable to exploitation. Surely we should be looking at finding solutions for the causes of migration not further punishing those who are suffering from its effects.”
Jane Cranston, Chair of Oxfordshire Homeless Movement