Sitting in Limbo, Stephen S Thompson’s drama about his brother who was a victim of the Windrush scandal is going out at 8.30pm on BBC1 tonight. Women who’ve come to Street Talk have had their lives destroyed by the Windrush debacle as well as by current immigration injustices.
Theresa, despite living alone and coping with poor mental health, was saving to buy the council flat where she had lived for thirty years when she received the letter telling her that she would be required to evidence her right to be in the country.
Stories were circulating about people getting the knock on the door from immigration and being carted off to a detention centre. Theresa was terrified and took to rough sleeping, which was less frightening to her than staying in her flat waiting for that knock. She thought if she wasn’t in the flat, they couldn’t come for her.
While rough sleeping, she was beaten up one night and suffered a brain injury which has left her with diminished cognitive ability. After a year of only going back to the flat occasionally to get things, Theresa was evicted on the grounds of under occupancy. She went from aspiring to but her home to having no home and now lives in a hostel for the homeless. Nobody is going to compensate her. She is no longer eligible for social housing because she was considered to have intentionally made herself homeless.
Another woman, Cheryl, was married with two young children in London. She was hounded by the immigration authorities and had been threatened with removal. She was desperately afraid of leaving her children without a mother, but at the same time had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Immigration continued to pursue her and throughout her illness she lived in terror right up to her death from breast cancer last year.
These are just two of countless examples of brutal and inhumane treatment inflicted by the immigration services in this country that Street Talk has born witness to.
The Government has announced that it is committed to accommodating the street homeless people, who have been taken into emergency accommodation, as part of the response to Coronavirus.
Since Street Talk was founded fifteen years ago, the numbers of women on the streets have multiplied. We have seen how austerity, accompanied by changes to the benefit system, not least the practice of sanctioning benefits, have put many vulnerable women on the street.
Street Talk is asking the government not only to fulfil their promise to accommodate people who have become homeless but to prevent homelessness by addressing the causes. If austerity has created street homelessness by marginalising the vulnerable, investment in services for vulnerable people would reverse it.
Street Talk asks the government to prevent vulnerable people from becoming homeless by committing to substantial and long term investment in:
- Children’s services and support for vulnerable families
- The profressionalisation of foster care
- Mental health services
- Support for those leaving the care system
- Mental health care and rehabilitation for those in prison and housing and support following release
- Legal aid
We are running a telephone helpline offering counselling and broader support to women in:
- 20 hostels for homeless women across London
- Two hotels in the London Borough of Camden temporarily housing rough sleepers
- Bronzefield Prison
Our three psychotherapists, Amanda, Rose and Pippa are now doing their therapy sessions by telephone. All the women have agreed to work in that way so none of their work has been interrupted. We have taken on additional referrals since the outbreak of the pandemic, as well as working with some women who have returned to Street Talk for support at this time.
Our art therapists Asta is now doing one- to one- art therapy sessions over the internet with the women and the one child in the hostel for women who have escaped from traffickers where she usually runs a group.
A lot of the calls to the helpline are from women who are hungry or who can’t get basic necessities so we are now assisting with donations of tokens for supermarkets and organising the delivery of essential items. Others are extremely isolated, locked down alone in unfamiliar accommodation or prison and we are writing letters and in some cases speaking to those women daily.
One of the most frightening places to be while we are in the grip of a pandemic must be in a prison or detention centre. In principle women should only be sent to an immigration detention centre immediately proceeding their removal from the country. Such removals are not taking place at this time due to the Coronavirus crisis, so why are the Home Office continuing to send women into these centres where they will be in even greater danger of contracting the virus?
The women who we have worked with who were held in immigration detention centres were in the UK as victims of trafficking and survivors of harrowing exploitation. We appeal to the government to stop sending extremely vulnerable women into danger.
Street Talk works in partnership with six hostels across London. All of us at Street Talk would like to thank the staff who are keeping these hostels open and providing a home for the most vulnerable at this time.
The teams in the hostels are selfless in their loyalty to the homeless, working without protective equipment and often in conditions where precautions such as social distancing simply aren’t possible. They do challenging work at the best of times. At this time, they are the unsung heroes of our city.
This is an exceptionally stressful time for the vulnerable women we work with, and with outreach services suspended across the sector, many will be forced to get through it with less support than ever.
Street Talk has always offered telephone counselling to those women who are not in a position to attend in person and we will now be extending that service. Starting from today, we are offering free telephone counselling and support to women at six hostels across London. Whether it’s to talk about the virus or any other issues that she may be facing, one of our counsellors will be available to any woman who needs us.
On Friday the National Audit Office published a report highlighting 69 cases of suicide by welfare claimants which may have been linked to problems with benefit claims.
Street Talk has worked with women who have been so desperate when their benefits were sanctioned, with no way to buy food other than to sell their body, that they have made an attempt on their own life.
We will add our voice to those already calling for a public inquiry into benefit-related deaths.
We were saddened this week to hear about the case of Errol Graham who starved to death in June 2018 after his benefits were stopped.
Assistant coroner Dr Elizabeth Didcock who heard the inquest into Errol’s death wrote in her verdict that the “safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it” — an inconvenient truth that, after 15 years of working with some of the most vulnerable and marginalized, we at Street Talk are all too familiar with.
Street Talk would urge the Department for Work and Pensions to learn from Errol’s case and improve our benefits system to work for the most vulnerable, and not against them as appears to have been the case here.
Street Talk has worked with numerous people who have missed out on their entitlement because they were too unwell to navigate a system that treats them with suspicion and hostility.
In one instance a woman’s benefits were sanctioned due to administrative error causing her to become homeless. Now living on the street, she was attacked and suffered a brain injury which lead to a permanent cognitive impairment. Even with our support it took 19 months to get her benefits reinstated and in the meantime her life had been tipped into a negative spiral as often happens when the most vulnerable are sanctioned.
All of us at Street Talk are shocked and disappointed that MPs voted 348 to 252 against the Dubs Amendment.
The Amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill offered safe passage to the UK to those unaccompanied refugee children, in camps in Europe, who have family members in the UK. Without family to protect them, the children are extremely vulnerable, to traffickers and to sexual exploitation. Street Talk works with the victims of trafficking and women in exploitative prostitution, all of whom became vulnerable as children.
We know that there are children as young as seven alone in camps. By dropping our guarantee of their right to be reunited with their families, we are preparing to put those children in harm’s way. Street Talk will continue to support Lord Dubs in his courageous fight to take care of these most vulnerable children.
An online petition calling on the home office to protect the reunification scheme has already been signed by over 200,000.