Homelessness statistics for the UK vary wildly depending on where you look. Government figures state that in 2018, the most recent year on record, the number of rough sleepers was 4,677; the BBC counters that with a figure of 28,000, calculated from data from local councils. Shelter, one of the country’s biggest homelessness charities, has estimated that the number of homeless people in the country is as high as 280,000, including people in temporary accommodation, with many more at risk, particularly given growing unemployment and the impending financial crisis. Evictions are paused until January, but the number of backlogged cases is said to be in the hundreds of thousands.
The government has, in word, committed to tackling homelessness. During the first Covid lockdown approximately 5,000 rough sleepers were housed in empty hotel rooms in a move which proved that the crisis can in fact be solved easily if the political will exists. By June, though, large numbers were being returned to the streets. Some support was continued, but it wasn’t extended to those with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) – those who, many agreed, were the individuals most at risk.
Then in late October, as part of an apparent push to undo whatever good was done, the government announced a new way of dealing with rough sleepers who lack British citizenship: deportation.
The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are keen to point out that it’s not as bad as it sounds. The rules only apply to non-citizens with NRPF; they’ll only come into play when no alternative is available. Whichever way you spin it, though, the fact remains that since 1 December, there are people in the UK who can be deported just for sleeping on the street.
In many ways, the new rules aren’t surprising. Around a quarter of those sleeping on the streets are believed to be foreign nationals, and a government that houses immigration detainees in military-style camps and considers building asylum centres on remote islands in the Atlantic certainly isn’t beyond sending them ‘home’. Removing rough sleepers from the country also nicely sidesteps responsibility for dealing with the housing crisis in supportive, sustainable ways, and helps concretise the idea that those on the streets are there because they did something wrong. Deportation is what we supposedly do to ‘dangerous criminals’, after all.
Perhaps more importantly, this government has shown itself to have a quiet affinity for deportation as a palliative method that goes well beyond the notoriety of the Windrush scandal. In November, Novara Media revealed that deportation charter flights had tripled as the government rushed to kick out asylum seekers ahead of the Brexit deadline.
In fact, the refusal to allow vulnerable individuals like Osime Brown—a 22-year-old man with autism, who came to the UK from Jamaica when he was four—to remain, despite the fact that his deportation has been branded a ‘death sentence’, makes clear that these flights are nothing short of ideological. And commercial collaboration makes actualising that ideology all too easy. Got an embarrassing national problem like people sleeping on the streets? British Airways or EasyJet will take care of it.
However, Whitehall is now learning not to take that collaboration for granted. Haringey, Islington, Southwark, and Oxford City councils, along with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and the Greater London Authority (GLA), have this month publicly vowed not to cooperate with the Home Office in the deportation of rough sleepers. The GLA has prohibited the charities and support networks that use its homelessness information network, ‘Chain’, from collaborating, too – a point of particular pertinence after it was revealed in 2017 that the Home Office had been using GLA data to deport foreign rough sleepers without its knowledge.
This move isn’t just representative of a division between Labour localities and a Tory national government, although the stance is more oppositional than anything we’ve seen from Parliamentary Labour in a while. It also speaks to a longer-running and still-growing tension between local and national government – one spurred on by ten years of austerity during which councils around the country saw their budgets slashed, with Labour ones the worst affected. It makes sense, then, that their loyalty to national dictation is contingent.
Emine Ibrahim, the Haringey councillor who made the decision to release the very first statement of non-collaboration, wrote last week for the Guardian about the reasons behind it. In her op-ed, she summed up the particular cruelty of preying on one of the most vulnerable groups of people for removal: ‘When our outreach workers gently wake someone sleeping rough in the middle of the freezing night and ask if they’re OK and if they want somewhere warm to sleep, the badge they show them is there to seek trust, give assurance and change their lives. It isn’t to strike fear into them that they will be deported.’
This is the point emphasised by the charities and campaign groups that have spoken out against the new legislation, too: that in a country facing such a severe homelessness problem already, effectively criminalising rough sleeping does nothing but discourage those most in need from seeking help. Among other organisations, Anti-Slavery International has also warned that the laws can be utilised by traffickers on whom the threat of homelessness and subsequent deportation will keep victims reliant.
Considering these positions, two outcomes seem realistic. One, that more people are sleeping rough in the new year, as they intentionally avoid the notice of local support groups; or two, that fewer people are on the streets – in which case we should be seriously concerned about where it is they’ve gone.