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Overcrowding in government accommodation

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Asylum seekers are being made to share cramped rooms and even beds with strangers in breach of strict measures to contain coronavirus, charities have warned.

Overcrowding in government accommodation has led to new people being brought into shared rooms in hostels since the UK-wide lockdown began last month, according to Refugee Action, Asylum Matters and the Scottish Refugee Council.

The charities said that although the Home Office had stopped evictions from its asylum accommodation for three months because of Covid-19, there was insufficient capacity to safely house the growth in the asylum seeker population.

They added that the crisis would increase because up to 50,000 more people need to be accommodated due to the decision to allow people whose asylum claim or appeal has been rejected, as well as those granted refugee status, to stay put.

Their concern comes after it emerged that the high court ordered the home secretary, Periti Patel, to rehouse a man who developed Covid-19 symptoms after another symptomatic asylum seeker was put in his room. The man, referred to as AQS in the judgment issued last week, was evicted last month for property damage after he became angry with the situation. After sleeping rough, he was taken in by a friend who subsequently developed “symptoms of a high fever”.

A witness statement from Refugee Action’s London asylum service manager in another legal case this month said people were being deterred “from applying for asylum support for fear that they will have to share a room and put themselves at risk should they contract Covid-19”.

An asylum seeker in a south London hostel said that since the lockdown two strangers had shared the only double bed in his room for a week.

He said there had been four people in the room – a video seen by the Guardian shows three beds a few inches apart – but two of them left last week and a new person moved in.

Simon (not his real name) said: “They tell you to sleep in the double bed with other people. Every three or four days new people come in. I am very scared. You are not in a safe place.”

The man, who has latent tuberculosis, said another occupant of the hostel had been taken to hospital with coronavirus symptoms.

A woman in different temporary asylum accommodation in London described her fear about sharing a double room with three strangers. Mary (not her real name), who is HIV positive, said people had regularly arrived at the hostel since the lockdown began.

“Last night there was someone sneezing and there is a lot of tension in the house,” she said. “I have flu [symptoms]. I am feeling scared.”

The judgment in the case of AQS shows his eviction came after another man was moved into his shared room who had “a persistent cough and night sweats”. The man left the next day but AQS developed “symptoms of a high fever and a persistent cough”.

Although AQS, who has mental health problems, was offered a single room, he became angry and was kicked out after an incident with the manager. Following judicial review, he was rehoused in “a facility operated specifically for those entitled to asylum accommodation with symptoms of Covid-19”.

The migration lawyer Simon Cox of Doughty Street Chambers, who represented AQS, said as far as he was aware this accommodation in London was the only dedicated housing for symptomatic asylum seekers in the UK.

He said: “Another of my homeless clients was asked to share a room with five other men on Friday [3 April]. The Home Office should be urgently sourcing extra accommodation, not crowding people into existing rooms. That’s a recipe for transmission.”

Stephen Hale, the chief executive of Refugee Action, said it was impossible for many asylum seekers to practise physical distancing and self-isolation. He added: “Overcrowding in poor accommodation and delays in providing even paltry levels of support have always been rife but now these problems are putting lives at risk.”

Sabir Zazai, the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said it was hearing daily from asylum seekers in Glasgow fearful of sharing accommodation with strangers.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Asylum accommodation providers are following public health guidance and are providing additional accommodation for individuals with symptoms who need to self-isolate.”

Thousands of rough sleepers still unhoused in England, say charities

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Councils call for more funds in order to meet government request for emergency shelter

Thousands of rough sleepers in England are thought to remain unhoused despite an unprecedented government request to local authorities to find housing for those on the streets by Sunday evening to avert the spread of Covid-19.

After the unfunded request from the government last week, which also called for the closure of night shelters and street encampments, homelessness charities questioned whether fulfilling it would be feasible. But on Monday, charities were keen to stress that considerable progress had been made in a short space of time, with the national homelessness charity Crisis estimating that about 4,200 had been rehoused in England within a few weeks.

“It shows what you can do with money and organisation and an assertive approach from government,” Matthew Downie, director of policy at Crisis said.

Birmingham city council had worked with a Holiday Inn in the centre of the city to accommodate more than 250 rough sleepers or residents of night shelters, he said, and hotel staff and charity workers were bringing people three meals a day to their rooms to allow them to isolate. Liverpool council has paid for more than 50 people to move into a newly built, unopened hotel.

Officials are concerned about the risk of transmission between people living on the streets, congregating in day shelters, and also about those who live in shelters with communal sleeping, eating and washing areas.

“There shouldn’t be too much self-congratulation about this. There are people still on the streets, and many people who won’t have eaten for days,” said Downie. “But we should recognise that it has taken a global pandemic to sort out an absolutely solvable problem; it is possible to get thousands of people off the streets and out of night shelters in the space of a week.”

Meanwile, charities dealing primarily with people who have an uncertain immigration status said they were worried that not enough support was being offered. People who have a “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) status – which is given to some asylum seekers, or people who have a limited immigration status – are not normally eligible for support from homelessness charities that rely on government funding. The question of how rehousing these people can be funded remains unresolved.

“It’s clear that NRPF conditions from the Home Office are prohibiting local authorities from supporting an extremely vulnerable groups of people,” a spokesperson for Naccom, a charity helping destitute migrants, said.

The Glass Door Homeless Charity said it had been contacted by many people who still needed urgent rehousing. “We have had one case of someone sleeping rough who has been told they must reconnect to their home country rather than being offered accommodation,” Neil Parkinson, a senior caseworker, said.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, wrote to the prime minister on Monday asking him to suspend the NRPF status. “Across London, there are tens of thousands of residents with NRPF, including delivery drivers, cleaners and NHS staff. Londoners with NRPF are at real risk of homelessness,” he said.

About 60 people were still sleeping in Terminal 5 at Heathrow on Monday night, according to Paul Atherton, a film-maker who has been homeless for a number of years and who is currently sleeping at the airport. He said he had not been given any support from outreach workers or from local councils.

The Local Government Association said councils needed more central government funding to complete the task. “Some councils continue to face challenges securing accommodation, not helped by the recent closures of hotels and caravan parks, and some insurance policies which may limit the ability of some hotel owners to take part in housing rough sleepers.

We are calling on the government to increase support to those councils that are struggling to source accommodation, hire additional staff, and support the people they are accommodating – including with essential basics such as food.”

Figures for the total number of rough sleepers and homeless people in England are unreliable, but Crisis estimates that there are thousands more people still in night shelters, lying next to each other on church hall floors or still living in hostels where they have to access shared space to cook or wash.

“The real test isn’t how quickly we get people off the streets, but how permanently we can keep them off afterwards,” Downie said.

The Home Office, which is responsible for regulations around which non-UK citizens have access to public funds, said: “Nobody should find themselves starving or destitute. Measures we have brought forward such as rent and mortgage protections and food vouchers are not considered public funds and can be accessed by migrants with leave to remain.”

But charities remained concerned about the situation for people who do not have the formal “leave to remain” immigration status.