New immigration rules which make one night of rough sleeping grounds for deportation of non-UK nationals have led to fewer people declaring their homeless status and instead moving off-grid, into squats.

Now that the UK has departed from the EU, an estimated third of all homeless people (non-UK nationals) are terrified to ask for help because of the immediate danger of deportation without trial. Court cases are suspended due to the pandemic.

This comes as evidence some homeless charities such as APAP, St Mungo’s and Street Link are working alongside immigration services. Non-UK nationals are afraid to ask for help because it means officially declaring their homeless status.

Some hotels are being offered by charities for homeless people to self-isolate in during Covid-19 but by accepting help and sleeping in ‘homeless hotels’ they risk being arrested during the night.

Both UK and non-UK nationals are scared to leave the squats for fear that bailiffs will break in and dispose of their belongings whilst they are gone, despite the new law against evictions in Tiers 3, 4 and 5 called Practice Direction 51Z.

Director of leading homeless charity Liberty, Martha Spurrier questions the involvement of homeless charities for this new purpose, “Using homeless charities to spy on the homeless is a new low, even for a government bent on bringing border controls into every corner of our lives.”

With media attention on the virus right now, human rights violations are being consistently overlooked, especially when it comes to homeless settlements.

Mary-Ellen, human rights and disability rights campaigner said, “Under cover of the Covid-19 Crisis and the Coronavirus Act 2020, human rights violations are not just being overlooked, they are being escalated”.

She continues “People right now are in desperate need of crisis care and our collective help to raise awareness. They need urgent protection from evictions and loss of income, security and safety as well as from unjust, human rights violating law changes, policies and political choices.”

Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) statistics indicate a 21% increase in the number of homeless people since the pandemic began, with historic high numbers of young people and disabled people made newly homeless. Figures released at the beginning of the pandemic show homelessness among ill and disabled people rising 53% in one year.

The rise in the number of homeless people paired with the recent closure of many homeless shelters across London has increased the number of people living in squatted residences and on squatted land.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, the Shadow Home Secretary, strongly opposes these plans, “Deporting people for being homeless is immoral. These plans would be appalling at any moment, but what makes it even worse is putting this forward as we face the deepest recession in generations and in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s completely unacceptable and tells you all you need to know about this morally bankrupt Tory government.”

With a 90-day break on evictions in Tiers 3 and 4, squatters in London have been working to open up more buildings in the hope that they can use them to safely house those who need to isolate whether from other squats or people who are street homeless. This follows the rise of autonomously organised Mutual Aid groups to assist people affected by the coronavirus.

However, these community projects are being prevented from taking place due to unlawful evictions.

On the day it was to become the first Mutual Aid Centre, The Pie’ N’ Mash Autonomous Cafe in South London was evicted. At least thirteen London squats have faced the same fate since 2021 began.

People evicted from a squat in Whitechapel sought help from the local Methodist Church who are providing sleeping bags and breakfast in the morning for homeless people but do not have the resources to provide housing or shelter for them.

The eviction of multiple London squats has resulted in an influx of people to the surviving squats which are now dangerously overcrowded, some with only one mattress to every three people making it impossible to socially distance. These sites also face the imminent threat of unlawful eviction.

“This is a social and humanitarian disaster” a squatter who had just tested positive for Covid-19 commented. “The council are refusing to support to us because they do not recognise our living space. This hypocrisy is responsible for so much suffering in this country. Squatters like me who have tested positive for the virus and are shielding at home are being forced onto the streets with nothing. When we are evicted from our homes we also lose all our belongings, even our mattresses. The government is putting our lives unnecessarily at risk.”

Another squatter added “It is important to differentiate between the politically motivated squatting scene and the squatters who are forced onto the scene through poverty and threat of deportation. However, we are all now facing the same dangers of the virus itself and of increasingly violent illegal evictions. Since this year began, the actions of the private security companies and eviction teams has become so physically dangerous that we fear for our lives.”

On January 4th, the same day the 3rd national lockdown was announced, a squat was evicted and some residents hospitalised with injuries including a fractured skull and fractured legs as a result of the violent behaviour of the bailiffs.

A member of the Advisory Service for Squatters said “Having not much work on, bailiffs, or blokes calling themselves bailiffs, have been trying on all sorts of dodgy ways to evict squatters and travellers. We have helped to stop a couple of these and are seeking compensation for some of those affected”.

Further, as evicted squat occupants have been leaving the premises, many experienced the police singling out people they suspect of being non-UK nationals. Without proof of address these people risk deportation.

There has been a mixed response from police who have protected squatters from unlawful evictions in some cases and sided with the bailiffs on others.

To add to the issues facing these people. The number of people testing positive for the coronavirus in the squats is rising along with other dangerous diseases associated with poor living conditions, but all squat occupants have been refused help by the local councils. This is because a squatted building or squatted land is not recognised by the government as a living space.

Many hot food kitchens have stopped operating and residents have been forced to break their self-isolation and leave the squats to salvage food from skips.

Whilst this is happening, many people have become newly homeless in the pandemic due to income losses and the rush of owners and bailiff companies to finish their business before government restrictions prevented them from doing so.

A number of homeless charities including Liberty, Shelter, Crisis, and NACCOM have sent a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick urging the government to reconsider the new immigration laws immediately and calling to work together to deliver more positive and effective alternatives to provide crisis care for homeless people at this time.

Last year the government’s successful ‘Everyone In’ policy provided 15,000 rough sleepers with safe accommodation as a response to the first lockdown.

But now we are in a 3rd lockdown, Paul Noblet, head of public affairs at Centrepoint believes the government is not doing enough, “Councils and charities were already struggling to cope with the volume of those facing homelessness due to the pandemic and so, with the cold weather setting in, central Government must make a fully-resourced return to the initiative that worked so well in the first lockdown,”

This new policy only exacerbates the problem, as Renae Mann, national director of NACCOM points out, “The threat of deportation will prevent people with insecure immigration status, including those people seeking asylum and those with refugee status, from accessing help. It will drive them further into homelessness, destitution and exploitative situations. This is unacceptable, particularly during a deadly pandemic that we know affects people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

The just and humane response to rough sleeping is to provide safe housing and support, not punish those who are experiencing homelessness by deporting them.”

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By Isabelle Haythorne

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