Councils can better support homeless non-UK nationals

It’s time for local authorities and homeless services to tackle homelessness among non-UK nationals, writes Jennie Corbett, policy officer at Homeless Link.

People from outside the UK make up around 10% of homelessness in Oxfordshire. Yet, before the pandemic, there was very little in place to support non-UK nationals with restricted eligibility for public funds in the region.

Following the Government’s introduction of the Everyone In scheme at the start of the pandemic, which removed the barriers that prevent many non-UK nationals from accessing legal homelessness support, the Oxfordshire Homeless Movement (OHM) saw an opportunity to act. In collaboration with local partners and with the support of local councils, she quickly set up a housing project aimed at supporting people without recourse to public funds towards long-term accommodation.

Inspired by the principles of Housing First, where people receive unconditional housing and support to maintain it, OHM houses and supports nine people without recourse to public funds and offers advice to eight others. The plan is to expand to the full cohort of 20 people as additional funds and housing are secured.

Without a legal safety net, non-UK nationals subject to eligibility restrictions, including no recourse to public funds (NRPF), are much more vulnerable to homelessness and destitution in England. This is often compounded by other barriers related to access control by support services, misunderstandings from front-line staff, and fear of negative repercussions in terms of immigration enforcement for those who occur.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that research indicates an increase in non-UK national homelessness in recent years. Crisis research on EU nationals, many of whom have limited entitlement to benefits and assistance, estimated that 22,000 EU national households were homeless in 2019. 5% of the population, EU citizens accounted for around 9% of the worst forms of homelessness and around 15% of rough sleepers.

Often homelessness organizations and local authorities are caught between a rock and a hard place, wanting to provide inclusive and welcoming services, but constrained and exasperated by funding requirements, confusing rights and legal exclusions counterproductive. But during the pandemic, we have seen how organizations across the country have seized the opportunity to support those who had previously been excluded from services. From the OHM-led housing project, to Islington LBC’s humanitarian housing response, to Reading BC’s appointment of an NRPF navigator, we have seen unprecedented progress in supporting a previously neglected group.

However, while these steps show a positive path, without a concerted national effort to anchor what we have learned, there is a real danger that the situation will revert to the pre-pandemic status quo. Homeless Link’s new briefing: Tackling homelessness among non-UK nationals: the challenge and the opportunity from ‘Everyone’, argues for the inclusion of people with immigration-based eligibility restrictions into traditional homelessness systems, for good.

Of course, sustainable solutions to this challenge cannot be found at the local level alone. But the past few months have seen a decisive positive change, with the Department for Leveling Up, Housing & Communities’ 2022-25 sleep-on-the-street initiative emphasizing provision for non-UK nationals with restricted eligibility for the first time. Additionally, a December ministerial letter clarified the government’s view that councils should be able to provide short-term accommodation, regardless of immigration status, under public health powers. But restrictive policies, driven by immigration controls, still pose significant barriers to the provision of housing and support.

Yet there are key steps local authorities and homeless organizations can take to better support people facing immigration-based restrictions. Key to this is integrating independent immigration advice into services, an approach endorsed by DLUHC in its Sleep on the Streets Initiative Guidelines.

Investing in quality immigration advice can generate savings for local and national governments by enabling people to access employment and reducing reliance on local funds. Other simple but crucial initiatives include improving partnerships with community organizations, investing in staff training, ensuring quality language interpretation in contracts ordered and providing support to the targeted employment.

Before the pandemic, Randjar (who is now hosted by OHM) slept rough in Oxford.

“I couldn’t get any benefits and I had no one to turn to,” he says. “I couldn’t go back to my country of origin, it was too dangerous. Since I was referred to this new service, they have helped me move into my own home and helped me find emotional support to come out of my ordeal. I am so grateful to finally feel safe and can now think about the future, including education and work options so I can regain my independence.

But success stories like this don’t have to be limited to a pandemic emergency. By innovating and prioritizing this previously neglected group, local authorities and homeless organizations can continue to provide life-changing support to people like Randjar.