In the past, housing associations have been accused of not pulling their weight when it comes to refugees’ needs. But progress has been made, says John Perry
The government likes to remind us that it has cut the numbers of people seeking asylum in the UK. These are now at just a little more than a quarter of their 2002 peak. But there are still many thousands of people who arrived as asylum seekers and are now getting approval to stay in the UK as accepted refugees. Add to this some 800,000 migrants who have arrived here from the new European Union countries, some of whom are deciding to stay. Both refugees and working migrants are — in general — eligible for social housing, but still find it considerably difficult to access.
It is now four years since former Housing Corporation boss Jon Rouse recognised this looming problem by telling a Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust conference that housing associations ‘had not pulled their weight’ in serving the needs of refugees. So have they got any better at supporting these client groups since?
Overall, refugees continue to show up disproportionately in homelessness figures. No fewer than one in 10 homeless families interviewed in a recent Communities and Local Government department survey were found to be former asylum seekers.
This suggests that social landlords generally are still not ‘pulling their weight’, since refugees clearly find it difficult to access normal allocations or are in vulnerable lettings in the private rented sector.
Migrant workers have so far made little use of the ‘homeless’ route into social housing, but there are reports of growing numbers who are destitute or sleeping rough, according to the same survey.
For the last two years, a dozen housing associations in six parts of England have been trying to make a difference to the services which refugees and new migrants receive. They have been taking part in a project called Opening Doors, run by the Chartered Institute of Housing and Hact, with funding from the Housing Corporation and the CLG.
The programme aims to find new ways of convincing more housing associations that catering for refugee housing needs and aspirations should be a mainstream service. And the results are beginning to show. So what has been achieved and what obstacles have been met on the way?
New housing needs
All those involved have faced the task of finding out about the needs of new groups in the areas they serve. In Southampton, First Wessex Housing Group has made use of the pioneering new communities survey carried out by the city’s local authority to assess how best to meet new needs through its support services.
Working in south Lincolnshire, Longhurst Group has begun a survey of migrant workers. The first 45 people surveyed have all expressed dissatisfaction with their accommodation. St Vincent’s Housing Association in Lancashire is holding focus groups with Polish and Lithuanian migrant workers to assess housing needs.
An important source of ‘intelligence’ on new needs comes from the local groups that are often formed by refugee and migrant communities. Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services belongs to a network of local groups based at a local refugee centre. The landlord has run courses for the groups to develop their knowledge of housing issues.
Tuntum Housing Association in Nottingham works with groups through a local refugee forum. And recently Staffordshire Housing Association ran a successful ‘community cohesion summit’ in Stoke-on-Trent which focused on refugee and migrant issues and featured presentations from community-based groups.
Obviously, it’s good to find out about housing needs but even better to try to meet them. Has Opening Doors improved access to housing for the target groups? While still a work in progress, some of the partners have achieved early results. Tuntum is taking on the management of the first properties made available by other Nottingham associations specifically for refugee use. The agreement is to reach a total of 40 units.
Staffordshire HA also has a programme to provide the same number of units in Stoke. In Bolton, where there is already experience of accepting refugees directly from refugee camps under the government’s Gateway programme, 10 Iraqi families have just been rehoused. Other Opening Doors partners, including some in Bradford, are now considering this programme.
Many refugees need wider support, not just accommodation. Tuntum has won a Supporting People contract to provide local refugee support services, which began in September. Staffordshire HA and BCHS have employed refugees as housing staff. Meanwhile St Vincent’s offers an urban care centre which provides refugee support and is working with the local Citizens Advice bureau to extend this to migrant workers.
While special projects are important, it is also vital to embed the knowledge and skills about dealing with refugees and new migrants within the organisation’s wider work — especially if it is part of a larger group. One barrier is ignorance or uncertainty about housing entitlements — which Opening Doors has sought to address through a new website (see box). Several of the partners have now redrafted their leaflets for applicants to reflect migrants’ needs and entitlements.
Staff training needs to ensure that refugee and migrant needs are considered alongside those of established minority communities. For example, St Vincent’s has developed its own training materials based on modules provided by Opening Doors (available at ww.cih.org/policy/openingdoors), which have been delivered to all its housing staff. Longhurst did the same using an outside trainer with expertise in migrants’ housing entitlements. BCHS has sponsored eight refugees to take ‘training for trainers’ courses so they can deliver training themselves, based on their own communities’ experiences.
A key aim of Opening Doors has been to show how associations can raise their game and begin to deliver proper services to refugees and migrants, who often now form a significant part of their potential client groups.
At a basic level, it can be argued that social landlords who do not do this are falling down on their equality and diversity obligations. But most social landlords genuinely want to meet the full range of needs in the communities they serve — the problem is the pressures on them to achieve more obvious targets like delivering new homes.
The example given by the programme’s partners shows what can be done — even by associations with little prior experience in this field — if a handful of staff are given the responsibility and time to take this on as a key task. Another requirement, though, which has proved vital for OD partners, is commitment to the process from the board and chief executive. Without it, staff enthusiasm will not be converted into broader recognition across the organisation of the importance of this area of work.
The CIH and Hact will be circulating the full results of the Opening Doors project early in 2009. It is hoped that many more social landlords will take up the challenge of serving some of the most marginalised communities in Britain.
Original post: Inside Housing