At the beginning of March a Corporate Watch report revealed how three of the UK’s biggest homelessness charities are collaborating with Home Office immigration enforcement teams on the detention and deportation of European rough sleepers. David Jones, an activist for North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) explains how.
Since May 2016 the Home Office has considered rough sleeping an “abuse” (or “misuse”) of European Economic Area (EEA) citizens’ right of freedom of movement. This means rough sleepers can be “administratively removed”—effectively, deported—from the UK purely on the basis that they are sleeping rough.
Evidence presented by Corporate Watch shows that St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Change Grow Lives’s street outreach teams are helping the Home Office implement the new policy through a culture of information sharing, joint patrols and “local cooperation agreements”. The report also suggests that St. Mungo’s and Thames Reach have pushed for increased collaboration with immigration enforcement through their membership of a consultative body called the Mayor’s Rough Sleeping Group. Both charities, the report claims, are contracted by the Greater London Authority (GLA) under “payment-by-numbers” schemes where fees depend on how many foreign rough sleepers they get out of the country.
The day after the Corporate Watch report came out, North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) led a Twitterstorm calling on charities to stop helping the Home Office detain and deport rough sleepers. We also issued a statement signed by a number of groups that support homeless migrants. In the statement we expressed our view that charities should be taking a stand against Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for migrants rather than accepting government money to help enforce policies that constitute a serious breach of civil liberties.
In response to the report and our Twitterstorm, St. Mungo’s and Thames Reach issued public statements. Howard Sinclair, Chief Executive of St. Mungo’s, told the The Independent that “[w]hen returning home is the only option for a vulnerable individual sleeping rough, we have to ask ourselves what would happen if we didn’t get involved”. Petra Salva, the charity’s Director of Rough Sleeping at St Mungo’s, fleshed out Sinclair’s argument in a blog for the Huffington Post.
St. Mungo’s and Thames Reach justify working with the Home Office in broadly similar ways. The argument runs as follows: rough sleeping is dangerous and harmful and non-UK-national rough sleepers are often not entitled to welfare benefits or statutory homelessness assistance. It is therefore often in their best interests to be helped to return home ‘voluntarily’ rather than staying on the streets. Partnership working with the Home Office is an effective way for charities to help rough sleepers go home.
Thames Reach’s statement makes the process sound almost idyllic:
The cost of their travel is covered, and they are put back in touch with family and friends and connected with accommodation providers and support agencies, including drug and alcohol treatment services and mental health specialists. We stay in touch with individuals to ensure that they are successfully getting their lives back on track.
If rough sleepers refuse the offer of returning home “voluntarily” and the Home Office subsequently decides to remove them, charities, they claim, “work alongside the Home Office to help put support mechanisms in place for them to ensure that their return home is undertaken safely and with dignity.” The role of outreach teams, St. Mungo’s claims, “is about advocacy and safety”.
In her Huffington Post blog, Petra Salva cites the case of “Peter, a 45-year-old man from Poland”, who, when St. Mungo’s first encountered him, was sleeping rough in London. Initially reluctant to engage, over time outreach workers worked with him to realise his wish to return to Poland and get treatment for his substance misuse issues. Salva celebrates the role of St. Mungo’s in helping Peter make the most of a scant range of option, explaining that he “is now in full time skilled employment assembling electrical components”.
She claims that “[St. Mungo’s] first response to non-UK nationals sleeping rough is always to offer help and support, ensuring people understand their rights and entitlements and, where possible, are provided with assistance to take up options in the UK including work and housing”. She defends joint-working with immigration enforcement as a way to ensure “that the best solution for vulnerable people is sought and that any work being done with individuals to resolve their homelessness is not jeopardised by Home Office interventions.”
In this version of events, which has gone largely unchallenged in press reports, the homelessness charities are compassionate realists, supporting vulnerable people to make the best of difficult circumstances and a hostile political climate.
The problem with the charities’ response.
St. Mungo’s and Thames Reach’s responses to the Corporate Watch report have been evasive at best—and disingenuous at worst.
It’s true that rough sleeping is dangerous. It’s also true that savage cuts to benefits have made working with EU rough sleepers harder than working with their British peers. The problem with the charities’ logic lies in the leap from this realisation to the conclusion that facilitating the Home Office’s enforcement agenda is a good way to help people off the streets.
The reality of immigration enforcement in the UK, as described by those who have experienced it, can be terrifying. Uniformed border guards descend at dawn, often accompanied by the police. Passports are confiscated and bleary-eyed men are herded into vans. Detained individuals can spend weeks or months in an immigration detention centre, where mental health and other support is almost non-existent, while removal is processed. Decisions about who gets detained are made by low-level civil servants or by enforcement officers themselves. Mistakes are commonplace.
St. Mungo’s and Thames Reach claim that by working with the Home Office, they are mitigating the worst effects of immigration raids. In reality, by sharing the location of European nationals sleeping rough, patrolling alongside ICE and referring individual rough sleepers to the Home Office without consent, they are providing the intelligence that allows raids to take place.
Nowhere in their public statements do the charities deny, or even address directly, the specific allegations made in the Corporate Watch report. Nor do they acknowledge the systemic nature of their collaboration with immigration enforcement. Instead, they seek to whitewash their corporate image by deliberately conflating enforced removals with the so-called voluntary reconnections that take place through schemes like Routes Home.
Nowhere in their responses to the Corporate Watch report do Howard Sinclair or Petra Salva deny the existence of a “payment-by-numbers” scheme or the claim that St. Mungo’s encouraged Theresa May’s recent crackdown on rough sleepers through its membership of the Mayor’s Rough Sleeping Group.
Nor do they address one of the more incriminating pieces of evidence contained in the report: an internal guidance document, printed on St. Mungo’s headed paper and obtained through a Freedom of Information request to Hammersmith and Fulham council. This document is worth quoting at length:
Below is the procedure to be followed by the Outreach Team [….]
Action to be taken when CEE [Central or Eastern European] National do not exercise their Treaty Rights for example –
– Refuse to accept assistance from the outreach team and other agencies
– Not demonstrating that they are seeking Employment or Further Education – Don’t have access to Public Funds
– Clients who refuse a single service offer of reconnection etc.
These individuals’ details will be passed on to the ICE by the outreach team. Following this a joint shift will be agreed with outreach, ICE, Parks Police to target/tackle these individuals.
“Target/tackle”: the language is identical to that used in the prospectus for the government’s new Controlling Migration Fund, which promises cash to local authorities working to “mitigate the impacts of immigration on local communities”.
Putting aside the question of whether outreach workers are qualified to determine whether a person is exercising treaty rights or has recourse to public funds, homelessness charities conducting “joint shifts” with enforcement teams are grossly overstepping their remit. At what point do such organisations stop being charities and become simply another coercive arm of the state?
The trouble with “voluntary” reconnection.
As for the so-called voluntary reconnection celebrated by Howard Sinclair and Petra Salva, this is clearly a worthy initiative for rough sleepers who want to return to their countries of origin. But, those working in the homelessness sector know that reconnection has been a default solution for years. Over three thousand homeless EEA migrants have been returned ‘home’ in this way since 2009, but no research has been commissioned to find out what happens to them on return. The success of reconnection is measured in terms of numbers of people sent away, not in terms of each individual’s wellbeing.
In the absence of supporting data, how do charities know it is in the best interests of EU rough sleepers to return home? Many EU nationals affected by the government’s recent crackdown on rough sleepers have lived in the UK for years, usually working and paying tax. Such people deserve to be helped off the streets in the same manner as any UK citizen.
And just how voluntary is voluntary reconnection? The Pan London Protocol on Rough Sleeper Outreach, which St. Mungo’s and Thames Reach are both signed up to, states that
[o]utreach workers should, in the first instance, seek rough sleepers’ voluntary engagement with assistance to get them off the streets, not least because this is most likely to yield lasting positive outcomes. However, they should consistently make clear that sleeping rough is unsafe and therefore unacceptable and explain that, if a rough sleeper does not voluntarily work with them, enforcement may be used.
It’s hard not to wonder: is this how Peter’s mind was changed?
Positioning oneself in the hostile environment.
Outside of a few heartwarming but largely irrelevant case studies about “voluntary” reconnection, neither St Mungo’s nor Thames Reach has provided any evidence to counter the allegations presented by Corporate Watch. How could they? Collaboration between large homelessness charities and immigration enforcement is structurally embedded, as this extract from the London Reconnections Team contract awarded to St Mungo’s in April 2016 makes clear:
3.26. The service provider is expected to work in close partnership with the Home Office and the Police. […]
3.27. The service provider will be expected to support Home Office operations across the capital, making staff available to target those EU rough, sleepers with support needs, who issued with Removal notices, or similar paperwork, with a reconnections offer. The service provider will ensure that details of clients refusing reconnection are recorded and passed to relevant referral agencies and the Home Office.
There’s that word again: target.
Rough sleeping is dangerous. Few would do it given any better choice. But if they truly want to address the problem, homelessness charities need to start taking a rights-based approach to working with EU migrants, rather than viewing foreign rough sleepers as an underclass whose best interests can be determined by others.
Low cost accommodation for workers, specialised employment, substance-misuse support and high quality immigration advice for those who might be in in a position to exercise treaty rights or have acquired permanent right of residence in the UK: there are a range of services homelessness charities could offer to EU rough sleepers, given the will to do so.
There is a grave risk, especially after Brexit, that freedom of movement will become a commodity available only to the rich. If homelessness charities want to be part of a progressive coalition against this assault on rights, their first step must be to decouple themselves from a toxic partnership with immigration enforcement.
Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for migrants depends on the complicity of civil society actors. Doctors, employers, landlords, teachers—more and more of us are being asked, and in some cases compelled, to become border guards. Such dark times leave us with little choice but to take a position. We can either support the status quo by facilitating immigration enforcement or we can resist. Resistance means refusing to police others and defending those targeted by an increasingly oppressive state.
It is time for homelessness organisations to come clean about where they stand.