Bristol has faced immense challenges in 2020 as we continue to seek to be inclusive and welcoming of everyone who calls our city home. Whether it’s been ensuring that emergency food supplies are culturally appropriate, or attending to the particular impact of COVID on BME-run businesses, or highlighting the amazing contributions of our key workers who were born overseas through the #WeAreBristol campaign, migrant inclusion has been at the heart of Bristol’s COVID response.
Perhaps the most challenging element of this has been around housing those in danger of rough sleeping, and particularly those with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) status. This is a condition imposed by the national government on a variety of different migrant groups, and means that despite working and paying into our system, they are not entitled to any of the social safety net that the rest of us take for granted.
Under the ‘Everyone In’ policy, Bristol City Council had the opportunity to give everyone sleeping rough in Bristol a roof over their heads through hotel-based accommodation. But we knew that simply providing shelter was never going to be enough. So we set up several ‘One City’ working groups, bringing together key leaders and organisations from across the city to develop a holistic package of support for those being housed and seeking to identify pathways for people into more permanent accommodation.
One of those supported through this work was Omar. Omar is a doctor who fled war-torn Syria and moved to the UK in 2016. Since then Omar has been awaiting a decision on his appeal after claiming sanctuary as a refugee. Omar has no access to public funds (NRPF) and relies for support from refugee charities that run drop-in centres and friends. Before the pandemic Omar was sofa surfing with friends across the city. When the pandemic hit us all, one of his friends started to have COVID-19 symptoms and for his safety and that of others, Omar was asked to leave. Omar became homeless and was sleeping rough on the streets. Under the ‘Everyone In’ policy Omar was offered hotel accommodation. And through a partnership between the Council and Bristol Hospitality Network, we have managed to identify a host who has agreed to offer Omar accommodation longer-term while his asylum claim is decided.
As we end 2020 and the ‘Everyone In’ policy comes to a close, we are committed to carrying on the spirit of the partnership work that has provided hope for people like Omar and many others. That’s why we’ve set up a roundtable event in the New Year to continue the conversation between the Council and the VCSE sector about how we can best join forces to support those with NRPF through the challenges of the next few months and beyond.
One of those challenges which is unfortunately not going to go away is the national Government’s Hostile Environment policies. Although that name may have been dropped, sadly its essence very much lives on in the policies and practices of the Home Office. The latest manifestation of this is the recent change to immigration rules which means that people sleeping rough could be subject to deportation, a move which has been condemned across the board for the way it will force people further underground and make them less likely to seek the support that they need to turn their situations around. This kind of policy runs totally counter to our spirit as a City of Sanctuary, and as such we are proud to announce that we will stand with many other Local Authorities across the country in refusing to play any part in collaborating with this inhumane system. We will ensure that Bristol City Council does not share any information on people sleeping rough in our city with the Home Office, and we will encourage our city partners to do the same.
Instead we will continue to call on the Government to fundamentally change course on No Recourse to Public Funds, and ensure that everyone in this country has access to the basic safety net that we all might need in a time of national emergency such as this. 2021 is going to bring all kinds of challenges as we seek to restart our economy and rebuild our communities. We need to ensure that everyone is equipped to play their part and that nobody is left behind, wherever they might have been born or whatever their background.