Rough sleepers are at risk of exploitation, modern slavery and death under new immigration rules that allow non-UK nationals to be deported, a homelessness charity has warned.
From Tuesday, rough sleeping will become grounds for refusal or cancellation of permission to be in the UK. It is among new Home Office powers that have been criticised as being “deeply concerning”, and as criminalising people for not having a home.
Jamaican-born Owen, 60, was forced to sleep rough on the streets of Wales earlier this year after his job as a cleaner came to an end and he could no longer afford to pay his rent.
Like many non-UK nationals, his immigration status meant he had no recourse to public funds and could not access Universal Credit or other types of support such as homelessness assistance normally provided by local authorities.
“They would have got the police to take me [out of my home], so I started sleeping in my van,” Owen told HuffPost UK. “Then from the van, I slept in a park and then a couple of nights under a bridge.”
A former mechanic, Owen lost his business and all his money after “trusting the wrong people” who took advantage of his illiteracy and tricked and stole from him. As a child, he had been taken out of school to work and never learned to read or write.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Owen was placed in a hotel in Romford where he continues to struggle with no work or money. But at least he is safe. “If it wasn’t for the virus I wouldn’t be where I am right this minute,” he said. “I would be sleeping out in the cold.”
If Owen ends up back on the streets, he will be one of the many non-UK nationals who could be deported if they turn down offers of support or engage in “persistent anti-social behaviour”.
According to a new rule signed by home secretary Priti Patel, which comes into effect on December 1, an individual's "permission to stay" can be refused or "cancelled" if they have been rough sleeping in the UK.
Although the Home Office has insisted the rule would only be used “sparingly”, campaigners have said this could mean a person could lose their right to stay in the country for sleeping rough for just one night.
Jasmine Basran, policy and public affairs manager at the homelessness charity Crisis, said these new rules could put already extremely vulnerable people at even greater risk.
“A huge concern that we have is that the rules will actually push people away from seeking support or approaching the local authorities for help,” she told HuffPost UK. “Instead they could turn to exploitative work in order to avoid rough sleeping.
“If people are fearful of being deported then they will do whatever they can to pay for a roof over their heads. We know, for example, that Eastern Europeans are particularly at risk of becoming victims of modern slavery.
“The real worry is what will happen if people are in even more dangerous and exploitative situations. That will ultimately undermine the government’s stated intention to end homelessness and rough sleeping in England.”
Owen added: “The government would have tried to kick me out,” Owen said. “I know that definitely could have happened to me if I was back on the streets.”
If he had been threatened with deportation, Owen believes he would have been unable to defend himself and fight to stay in the country. “When you can’t read or write, everything is so much harder. For example, if you’re supposed to attend court at 5pm today, you wouldn’t even know because you can’t read the letter. It’s a struggle.”
The introduction of these cruel, new immigration rules is deeply concerning. No one should be punished for being homeless. Jasmine Basran, policy and public affairs manager at Crisis
“If there are language barriers, then it makes it even more difficult to understand what is required of you,” said Basran. “How can you understand what it means when you are told you are not engaging in support?”
Once a person is deported from the UK, it is “almost impossible” for charities such as Crisis to track them. “The horrific thing is that, for some people, it’s possible they have died as a result of that,” Jasmine continued, giving an example of a rough sleeper who was deported and who she has not been able to find since. “There is definitely that risk.”
At a time when the UK faces a “tsunami of homelessness”, many people could find themselves just like Owen – jobless and forced onto the streets. Under these new rules, they could also be kicked out of the country.
A government spokesperson said ministers were “committed to transforming the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society and to ending rough sleeping for good”.
They said: “The new rule provides a discretionary basis to cancel or refuse a person’s leave where they are found to be rough sleeping. The new provision will be used sparingly and only where individuals refuse to engage with the range of support available and engage in persistent anti-social behaviour.
“We remain committed to ending rough sleeping for good and have been working hard to ensure the most vulnerable in our society have access to safe accommodation. This year alone, we have provided over £700m in funding to support rough sleepers.
“The safety and security of modern slavery victims is also a top priority for this government, and the Victim Care Contract provides support to potential and confirmed victims of modern slavery who consent to support, including accommodation.”
Crisis – as well as other homelessness charities across England – has called for the government to scrap these rules and instead provide funding for local authorities to give safe emergency accommodation – regardless of their immigration status.
“It’s a particularly vicious policy while we’re in the midst of a pandemic,” Jasmine said. “To be fearful of seeking support when it’s already incredibly dangerous to be rough sleeping.
“It’s the worst kind of outcome you could possibly hope for.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.