How innovative legal help is supporting destitute migrants

Monday, 14 November 2016 - 9:00am

More than one in ten rough sleepers in London in 2015 were people from non-EU countries, most of whom had no recourse to public funds. Addison Barnett, Street Legal Project Manager, explains how they are delivering an innovative legal advice project working in partnership between the homelessness and migrant sector. 

Why is Street Legal needed?

Without access to housing benefit and a route into the housing pathways provided by homelessness agencies, many non-EU individuals become destitute. Denied the ability to work and claim any benefits for support, destitute migrants have limited accommodation options and little access to food or health support.

Alongside unfamiliarity with UK systems and mistrust of ‘official’ organisations, this can mean people are at real risk of exploitation and abuse. Unregulated immigration advice is a criminal offence, even when given free of charge on behalf of a charity or not-for-profit organisation, and regardless of its competence or otherwise. Even if given in good faith, the potential impact of providing poor advice can have very serious implications on those it is intended to support.

Street Legal began as a response to people sleeping rough with unresolved immigration cases who were destitute and unable to access safe routes off the street. Praxis Community Projects, St Mungo’s and Refugee Action, supported by the Homelessness Transition Fund, ran two pilots between 2012 and 2015 in east and west London.

The pilots created a model for working with non-EU destitute migrants. The reports and learning from these pilots were used to apply for ‘Help Through a Crisis’ funding from the Big Lottery Foundation, and a three-year pan-London project began in July 2016.

What does Street Legal aim to do? 

We believe our approach is truly innovative: we link together rough sleepers, outreach workers, emergency accommodation providers, and accredited immigration advisors. We enable these services to work together to offer clients a route out of rough sleeping by resolving their immigration status.

In London, access to the Street Legal project is available to non-EEA rough sleepers who have been referred into one of the No Second Night Out (NSNO) hubs by a local outreach team. Once in this initial accommodation and away from the streets, clients are able to receive support to resolve their immigration status from immigration advisors, working in partnership with frontline homelessness staff. 

We provide Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) accredited immigration advice while working to identify existing accommodation options, negotiate bed spaces and set up ways to accommodate clients as they seek to regularise their status. Street Legal delivers a model for how the migrants and homelessness sectors can work together in the future for the benefit of these clients.

Case study: Ismail’s story

Ismail* had been sleeping rough on London’s streets for several months last winter, when he was picked up by St Mungo’s outreach team. He was taken to a No Second Night Out hub, where he could be safe and warm, and referred to Street Legal for urgently needed immigration advice. He was suffering from depression self-harming, and had attempted suicide. Trained staff from NSNO were on hand 24 hours a day to support Ismail and ensure he had access in-house mental health services. In undertaking a full assessment of Ismail once he arrived, NSNO staff referred to appropriate immigration advice. 

Photo credit: Refugee Action

Ismail was forced to flee his home in Morocco when his family discovered that he was in a gay relationship. His father and brother felt he had brought shame on the family and they attempted to kill Ismail. He managed to escape and his mother later helped him to travel to the UK on a student visa. Once his course finished, Ismail’s visa expired but he remained in the UK working as a chef. Eventually a colleague threatened to inform the Home Office about Ismail working illegally. Terrified for his life were he to be deported, he never returned to work. Soon he couldn’t pay his rent and became street homeless.

Street Legal’s immigration advisor supported Ismail to claim for asylum, and to get him into emergency accommodation on that same day. Ismail was assisted over a period of several months to gather the evidence and documentation required to support his asylum claim. His case was so strong that within a week of his asylum interview, he was granted refugee status. Street Legal has since supported Ismail with signposting to a GP, counselling, and advice on accommodation. Ismail now has a place to live and is much happier. He feels more settled in the UK and has hope for his future. * Name changed to protect identity

Part of the Street Legal team is a Community Engagement Worker, who focuses on the communities from which clients are referred. We also work to strengthen the collective voice of migrant communities at risk of rough sleeping. We are currently recruiting our first cohort of community champions to help develop a programme of group work that will empower vulnerable migrants and build their capacity to prevent, and survive, destitution. Through rights and entitlements workshops and awareness-raising sessions, Street Legal’s community engagement strand promotes improved access to services, particularly high quality immigration advice. It also creates a user-voice ‘feedback loop’ to ensure that the service is sensitive and responsive to the needs of people with no recourse to public funds.

Where do people live in the meantime? 

Resolving someone’s immigration status can be a lengthy process, and NSNO hubs and staging posts are not suitable for the six to nine months or more it can take to resolve someone’s status.

For those engaging with the immigration process, there are some longer term accommodation options through hosting organisations, religious communities and solidarity beds. Demand far outstrips supply, however, and setting up sufficient housing options has been difficult. Street Legal aims to pilot sustainable accommodation for clients over the lifespan of the three-year project and set up accommodation pathways as part of its legacy.

One potential solution is to build on previous successes of leasing Housing Association properties that may otherwise be empty, such as those awaiting re-development or planning permission. While in this accommodation, staff would empower clients to move on to hosting or Home Office National Asylum Support Service (NASS) accommodation options. Staff would also support clients to engage with the Community Engagement Groups, and access primary healthcare and other support such as ESOL classes. Language barriers and lack of knowledge about services can lead to isolation, and we know that physical and mental health issues can be further compounded by continued rough sleeping.

What if immigration cases take longer to resolve, or are appealed? 

Over the next three years Street Legal will be assessing what happens within the service, and also monitoring what impact external factors - such as post-Brexit legislation - may have on how people’s cases are handled by the Home Office.

In the meantime, Street Legal will be doing its best to help the one in ten people on London’s streets who are destitute and in need of practical and legal support.

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Addison Barnett

Street Legal Project Manager

Addison Barnett is the Coordinator of St Mungo’s LGBTQ+ Network, which provides support, advice and best practice to LGBTQ+ staff and allies across the charity. Now in our 14th year, the network was recently awarded Stonewall Staff Network of the Year 2016.