There is a standing item on Hope Projects zoom team meetings. Will there be any evictions this month? Local Authority or Home Office? Standing answer. We don’t know. Of course we don’t know…
Back in March, when we thought this would all blow over even though the Winchester was closed, Hope Projects joined many other charities, notably NACCOM and Asylum Matters writing to everyone we could think of to say ‘You can’t have people homeless on the street in a pandemic’. Not just because it would be obscenely cruel – we know that successive Governments have already discounted for that – but because it constituted a massive risk to public health. It turns out that public health has to include everyone if it hopes to protect anyone. To our surprise we won (Read about that here).
Through the summer and autumn we continued to house and support the people we were supporting at the start of the pandemic – as the courts ground to a halt and solicitors furloughed many of their staff the asylum system pretty much froze. If anyone was made homeless we were able to point them to the Home Office or Birmingham City Council. Pandemics are powerful things.
But as autumn crept towards winter we were reminded of something stronger than the pandemic. The Governments unswerving devotion to the hostile environment. We started to hear that funding for local authorities would no longer include support for people with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’. People housed by the Home Office in hotels started to get eviction letters from Serco, the landlord. Letters that the Home Office then seemed baffled by. Then the Home Office said that they would start to evict people. If it sounds chaotic it was, and is. Hope scaled up its legal advice to people in temporary accommodation and started making plans to be able to house large numbers of people at very short notice.
Cutting against this, every time the Home Office tried to ramp up the hostile environment and get people out of the temporary safety that they had been forced to grant them, the public health situation became worse. When Tiers were introduced in mid October, Birmingham was put in Tier 2 ‘High’. ‘Can you really carry out mass evictions in Tier 2?’ we asked. No answer came the stern reply, but also no evictions. We were entering limbo. Deadlines came and went with no clarity. Successive sets of plans were drafted, revised, scrapped, redrafted…
Next came lockdown. For the love of God you can’t evict people into a national lockdown can you? Again no answer, again no evictions. New deadlines, more plans. More redrafting… We’ve had exasperated conversations with local authority colleagues who have no more information than we have. Earlier this week, with less than 1 week to go before the next deadline when local authorities were going to have to stop housing destitute asylum seekers, with public health and housing officials still in the dark, Birmingham City Council announced that they would extend their deadline for another month. And then review it on a month by month basis. So we stand down our plans again, and rework them for the new year. We’re now in Tier 3. That will probably change everything. Probably. What a way to run a railroad. If I’m reaching the end of my tether, what must it be like to be living under this uncertainty? Talk about precarity. Talk about ‘life on hold’.
Don’t get me wrong. My sympathies are firmly with the council (that’s a collectors item for you). And every minute we delay mass evictions is a victory we celebrate. But doesn’t this all show up the fundamental problem? There is no way to square the circle. Leaving people with no recourse to public funds, with no right to a roof, is just wrong. And there is never a right time to do the wrong thing.