This blog post came out of a workshop I ran for the excellent NACCOM network.
My day job is coordinator of Hope project in Birmingham, providing housing, financial support and legal advice to asylum seekers left homeless and destitute by flawed asylum refusals. One of the things that makes Hope distinctive is our focus on the shortcomings of the asylum system. Our purpose is not to house and support people who are destitute. Our purpose is to overturn wrongful refusals of asylum. Housing and financial support are essential tools in this fight.
This differs from most destitution projects in subtle but significant ways, and it needs some unpacking. Firstly, there are two foundational statements that are the true, I think, for everyone working in this field.
“The asylum system fails many people”
“No one should ever be homeless and destitute.”
And so, if the supply of housing and money matched the demand, we would house, support and advise every homeless and destitute person we came across. It doesn’t. We have, as John Atherton used to say, the problem of scarcity. We need to decide who to help, particularly who to house (because housing is our most in demand resource), and who not to. We have to develop criteria to guide hard choices.
I’ve come across at least two sets of criteria other than the ones that we use. I’m not here to attack them. Projects using them are doing amazing work. They are just not the ones we have chosen and I want to explain why.
Firstly, the is the criteria of present vulnerability. The person in greatest immediate need gets priority. Perfectly logical, transparently compassionate.
Secondly, born out of radical hospitality, we house people first come first served, it is not our place to question why a person needs housing. If they say they do, we help.
Our criteria are different, and they flow from our purpose. We exist to overturn flawed refusals of asylum. Ours is a rights target than a welfare based approach. Clearly we give priority to asylum seekers, but further, we prioritise those with stronger asylum cases. We do this for 2 reasons, one pragmatic, the other principled.
Firstly, because our ultimate aim is not to provide temporary support, but to get people out of destitution for good, we focus on what we can fix. It doesn’t seem the best use of our resource if 6 months down the line, someone is still in exactly the same position, with little hope of it ever changing. We either have to ask them to leave with or house them for ever, meaning that we are unable to house others. Focusing on stronger cases leads to the greatest good for the greatest number in the long term.
Secondly, an asylum case is strong because a person has a well founded fear of persecution. They are likely to suffer harm if forced to return home, and destitution is simply a tool to force people to return. Taken in this perspective, in the long term, those with the strongest asylum cases are in fact the most vulnerable, even if they do not present as such because of what is likely to happen to them if they’re forced into returning.
In practice it’s messier. Partly because Hope is inherently messy; all of our referrals come via our partner charities who then decide between them who gets housed in the light of Hope staff recommendations. Partly because we break or own rules. For example we have never yet turned away a pregnant women. We say it’s because once the child is born we can enforce a social responsibility to support. Deep down we know we would do the same whatever. We just would. The tension between a clear purpose and a messy process humanises what could otherwise be a quite cold system.
I’m not arguing that the Hope’s system is perfect, or criticising other approaches. If you’re doing anything to chip away at the scandal of asylum destitution, then you are doing something admirable. In our situation it’s what we have found to work and we simply offer our experience to others in the field.