Walking the Whole Way

The NRPF project is designed to help people with ‘no recourse to public funds’. Those individuals are typically at the bottom of the pile, when it comes to accessing services. Covid kind of changed everything. During the pandemic, the Government had a scheme called ‘Everyone In’, which included this group. That raised a lot of questions across the charity sector in Oxford – why does it take a pandemic to help these people? And so during that period Oxfordshire Homeless Movement (who are the funders of this project), began conversations with various partners like St. Mungo’s, Connection Support, Asylum Welcome, Aspire – lots of different charities got their heads together to really think more long-term about this group.

It’s really all tied to their immigration status. Anyone who has any kind of complicated or difficult immigration status – I suppose the classic example is a failed asylum seeker, who is then appealing their claim. These are people who could have been here for decades, may have been working, may have had marital breakdowns, family breakdowns, something with their mental or physical health. Some have been affected by Brexit and the settlement scheme. Some have more complicated things like criminal convictions impacting their ability to stay. All of them, for one reason or another, don’t feel safe to return home. We help single individuals, we don’t have the scope to help families. And typically those individuals are men. A lot of them came as teenagers, as unaccompanied minors. They went through the social care system until they were too old. A number have been here for 10, 11 years, and very much identify as British in many ways.

So it’s that group of people we’re trying to help, specifically the ones at risk of homelessness. There are different levels of ‘no recourse’. Most don’t have the right to work, which is the main issue. They can’t apply for housing benefits, or universal credit, any form of financial support really. A really difficult situation. A lot of them have been waiting a very, very long time to hear back about their status, and are facing the choice of whether they continue to fight against their asylum refusal and appeal it. A lot of people are successful later in overturning their refusal, so there’s not much confidence in the justice of the asylum system. That system encourages people to think about returning to their home, if they have had a refusal. If not, they have to find a way to support themselves. Not being able to work makes that very hard. But we’re pretty sure most people do work, it’s just cash in hand. Which can put people in difficult, exploitative situations.

I studied refugee protection and forced migration studies, and through my other job I’ve worked with refugees and asylum seekers in Iraq, Greece, Lebanon, at different stages of the journey. I’ve always had an interest in the end of the journey, people finding their sense of home. So for me, this role was really about helping people who were looking to find their legal roots as well as their life roots in a city that I call home. The other thing that excited me is that it’s a partnership model, working with other organisations across Oxford. There are not many projects like this one – I know lots of people around the country are interested in this project as a pilot, seeing how it develops. It’s quite exciting to be part of something that really is quite different, and quite unique in the level of support it offers a group of people that every council, every town, every city struggles to know how to help. The project has been set up initially for five years. It’s the most stable, long-term project available to this group of people that has probably ever existed in Oxford. It’s quite a high level of support, which means it’s quite expensive. And it’s helping a small group of people for a relatively long time. It’s easier to get funding for projects that help hundreds of people – you can put that in your statistics. This one, realistically, over the five years, may help 30 people. But some of those people will be housed by us for a long time. And it affords them stability they would never have got elsewhere. So it’s unusual in terms of the charities being brave enough to do it.

I’m the project manager, I’m doing the coordination, big picture, trying to keep things going. We have a team of support workers who are day-to-day working with the clients, but I have had a few opportunities to do some support work myself. If you build up trust with people, if you spend time with people, you end up hearing about their lives and stories. And that’s a real privilege.

The guys that we’ve been able to house, I have seen a huge difference in their lives compared to those we haven’t housed yet. Those guys, their mental health is worse, they’re anxious. Some of them are sofa surfing, but it changes every couple of nights, it’s very insecure. The impact of that is obviously very distressing. Compare that to the conversations I have with those who have been housed now for several months. And in pretty nice homes as well, we try to make them homely, make sure it doesn’t just feel very basic. Several of them have shared that it just makes them feel human again. One of them was describing to me the privilege of being able to make a sandwich whenever he wanted to, even if it was in the middle of the night. That’s been really lovely to see.

But you then always feel pained by the people you haven’t been able to help yet, in that way. That’s probably one of the issues with the charity sector in general. You’re always aware of what more needs to be done.

All of our Support Workers so far have had some experience of ‘no recourse’ themselves. So they’re very well equipped to work alongside this group of people. Having some long-term trust with the clients is important, because a lot of these clients, you know, they’ve been passed from Support Worker to Support Worker, organisation to organisation, like a human baton. It’s really important to remember the clients are people with rich lives. They’re not just victims who need our help. A lot of them have had very distressing, but also very fascinating lives, and different reasons that have brought them to where they are now. Also very different hopes for the future. I think, as a project team, it’s important that we are all of a similar mindset, in how we view these individuals. That outlook is one of compassion, one of understanding. The hostile environment policy is the outlook of the Home Office. I suppose there is a reaction to that, trying to be the opposite of hostile to these people, trying to offer them an experience of compassion, of listening. Personally playing that role, it’s really difficult. Sometimes you feel like, really, this project shouldn’t have to exist. I would much rather that the policy changed and there wasn’t any need for this. Because ultimately, it’s designed to make people destitute and then go back. So I would love it if it didn’t have to exist.

But since it does, just having that kindness, that compassion, at every stage, in every interaction, is so important, working with this group of people. And also honouring what’s important to them. There’s one client I’ve ended up regularly taking to the dentist, every month or so I drive him. We have now fixed the initial problem, a difficult root canal. But he rang me yesterday, and he really wants his teeth to be whitened because he’s got discoloration, which is clearly causing him distress and affecting his confidence. In the charity sector, when you’re supporting people financially, you think, ‘There’s what’s needed, and there’s what’s wanted.’ But I’ve been reflecting on it, and this is clearly really important to him. Every interaction I’ve ever had with him, he has mentioned this, it’s on his mind all the time. So stopping to really reflect on how he is viewing this, rather than me. Can we help him budget towards that? It doesn’t have to be that we fund it, but we can still help him work towards that and give him that free will, that dignity.

It’s a very difficult project, I think, to really capture neatly, like anything involving people’s lives. But I think it’s been a good first year. I think giving people some sense of a constant, even if they continue their interactions with another service, having a constant who is going with them to appointments, who can ring them up and check in, someone who’s really walking the whole way with them – that’s important.

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