As the deadline for applications for the European Union Settlement Scheme (EUSS) has now passed, St Mungo’s Head of Migrant and Advice services Sylvia Tijmstra discusses how things have changed for our clients over the past five years.
Five years ago, on 24 June 2016, millions of European citizens like myself woke up to the news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union.
After the initial shock, my mind quickly turned to the practical. What did this mean for us? As someone with a Dutch passport, living with another Dutch national, would we still be allowed to live and work in this country? Would our three young children be forced to leave the country they have called home all their lives?
A quick Google search revealed our family had options. My partner and I had been in the country for 13 years by that point and had ‘exercised our treaty rights’ throughout. On top of that two of our three children turned out to already be British citizens even though we had not previously realised this.
I counted my blessings that day, for there are few things more precious in life than options – options to remain in post-Brexit Britain, options to return to the Netherlands and options to start a new adventure in another European country altogether.
Through my work as the Head of Migrant and Advice services at St Mungo’s, I am, however, acutely aware that not everyone is as blessed with options.
Every year, thousands of EU citizens end up sleeping rough in London alone. Quite often this happens because, while they have a right to live and work in the UK when life throws them a curveball, they have very limited access to the benefits and housing support they need at that time.
One of the services I oversee is the Routes Home service. This is funded by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and was specifically commissioned in 2016 to support non-UK nationals in this situation to identify viable routes off the streets, either in the UK or abroad.
While we could often find solutions in the UK for non-EU nationals through immigration advice routes, the options for EU nationals were often much more limited in those early days.
With an established right to live and work in the UK, but limited opportunity to gain full access to the benefits they needed to stabilise their life, for many the only way to resolve their homelessness was to return to their country of nationality.
As a result our team members poured their heart and soul into finding the best solution possible for our clients in their country of nationality.
For example, we developed an innovative partnership with MONAR, a detox and rehab organisation in Poland. This partnership gave any Polish nationals sleeping rough in London access to the often life-saving treatment they were unable to access in the UK.
The introduction of the EU Settlement Scheme following the Brexit vote drastically changed the options for EU citizens to resolve their homelessness. With its emphasis on residency, it offered those who had made the UK their home for five years or more the same support that had been available to many of us all along.
This was a truly transformational moment for our Routes Home service and our clients. I will always remember the struggle to gain access to the various test phases of the EU settlement scheme for our clients in 2018 and then the relief when the scheme was finally opened fully on 30 March 2019.
To make the most of this opportunity, St Mungo’s registered with OISC, the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, to provide immigration advice in relation to the EU Settlement Scheme and teamed up with a range of migrant sector partners to give those who needed it access to higher level advice.
For many, this meant that for the first time in a long time they had options – they could apply for settled status in the UK and resolve their homelessness in this country or they could choose to return to their country of nationality and rebuild their lives there.
As a result, many clients who would normally choose to return to their country of nationality instead chose to make the UK their permanent home.
Left in Limbo
Once the novelty of new options started to wear off, the reality of Brexit for those who had arrived more recently, or could not evidence their full residency in the UK, began to hit home.
Almost from the day the scheme launched there has been debate and legal challenges around the benefit entitlement of those with pre-settled status. More than two years on, we are still waiting for the Supreme Court to make a decision on this matter.
In the meantime, many of our clients are left in limbo – unable to access the support they needed to resolve their rough sleeping in the UK and unsure how leaving the country now would affect their ability to return at a later date.
Options have long been limited for this group, but at least prior to Brexit they were clear. Now people are asked to weigh up possibilities and many are choosing to remain in often dangerous situations, holding out for a solution in the UK that may never come.
In a strange way the coronavirus pandemic offered some respite for this group. Some chose to return to the safety of home, but many others were offered accommodation as part of the ‘Everyone In’ response to Covid-19.
This gave us an opportunity to support unprecedented numbers of people to explore their options to leave homelessness behind for good from a place of safety.
For many, Plan A was to apply for pre-settled status and explore options to find a job in the UK. In London, the Covid pandemic gave us the opportunity to work with the GLA and amazing organisations like Radical Recruit to see if we could make that option a reality.
During the last year we also managed specialist pan-London Covid emergency hotel called the Stay Club, offering some of this group of people employment support alongside immigration and welfare advice and specialist housing and reconnection support.
In the face of challenging labour market conditions, many of these achieved the outcome they were aiming for – a decent job and a new future in the UK.
For others, Plan A turned out to be harder to achieve. They were offered support to explore alternative options.
Some embraced those options, others did not, but all had the opportunity to make informed choices from a place of safety – something so many of us take for granted.
So it was with, a mixture of great pride and sadness, that my team and I closed the doors at the Stay Club for the last time on Wednesday 23 June 2021. Exactly five years after the Brexit vote, which truly felt like the end of an era.
As the end of the Brexit grace period looms, and the Covid emergency provision starts to make way for the recovery phase, as an organisation we want to secure this Covid legacy and carry these ways of working forward into the ‘new normal’ of post-Brexit Britain.
The Kerslake Commission is pulling together recommendations about ending rough sleeping and from lessons and good practice learnt during the pandemic.
To achieve an end to street homelessness, our view is that we need continued investment in thorough assessment and support for anyone sleeping rough on the streets, regardless of immigration status or recourse to public funds.
Only if we take this approach will we ever come close to ending rough sleeping altogether.