The publication of the Government's housing White Paper on 7 February is, if nothing else, acknowledgement of the very real threat the housing crisis constitutes for too many people. One in three families is one month's pay cheque away from homelessness.
The most visible manifestation of this largely hidden phenomenon is the ever-growing number of rough sleepers, a figure that has more than doubled since 2010. The latest government data for autumn 2016, published on 25 January, give a figure of 4,134 rough sleepers on just one night, an increase of 16% on the previous year.
Around a quarter of rough sleepers are in London. Separate higher figures produced by the multi-agency database CHAIN show that more than half of these are foreign nationals, predominantly from Central and Eastern European states.
Rather than tackle the root causes of rough sleeping, the Government is instead focused on deporting rough sleeping European Economic Area (EEA) nationals. If some claims are to be believed, the real rise is in foreign nationals sleeping rough across the UK. The solution thus is simply to deport the problem along with them, as unveiled in plans to eradicate homelessness by 2020 by Hackney Council in north London.
EEA nationals have the right to enter and reside in other EEA states, such as the UK, for an initial 90-day period, after which they may remain if they are exercising EU Treaty rights and are not a financial burden on the state. According to the Government, rough sleeping is a breach of free movement rights under the EU Treaty.
Applying this philosophy, in November and December 2015, Westminster Council in London, which has the highest rough sleeping population in England, launched a pilot of Operation Adoze, during which 127 EEA nationals were deported. It was deemed such a success that a second pilot was held and expanded to several other London boroughs.
According to Westminster Council, which lobbied for Adoze to become national policy, which happened in the 2016 budget, "these actions are designed to make living on the streets as uncomfortable as possible in order to reduce numbers and show a consistent message that it is not fine to sleep rough in Westminster". As for foreign rough sleepers, the assertion that they "do not require support but choose to sleep rough" is sweeping and unsubstantiated.
Rough sleeping is seldom a lifestyle choice.
New Home Office policy guidelines, updated and redacted in February 2017, were then introduced in May 2016, weeks before the EU referendum. They allow the administrative removal of EEA rough sleepers even if they have been in the UK for less than three months and are otherwise exercising Treaty Rights, a possible arbitrary breach of the treaty itself.
Return to the UK is prevented for one year and detention and removal are expedited. Immigration enforcement works alongside the Home Office, local authorities and homeless charities to treat destitute EEA nationals like criminals who need to be detained and deported for sleeping rough, which is not a criminal offence.
The criminalisation of rough sleeping through fines and homeless spikes is already underway. Although rough sleeping is deemed antisocial and unsightly, recent research shows that rough sleepers are far more likely to be victims of antisocial behaviour and violence than the general public. As Westminster Council cleanses the area of foreign rough sleepers, it is also shipping its domestic homelessness problem out of the capital to other parts of the UK.
For EEA nationals facing deportation on this basis, there is a right to appeal but no right to legal aid to file an appeal. With many unable to speak English, they are unaware of their rights. The appeal should suspend deportation and can be made from abroad; nonetheless, in some cases deportation can be effected within 72 hours. As an administrative procedure, appeals are more difficult to make although a court challenge against the legality of administrative removals on this basis is likely to be made.
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The impact on rough sleepers is immense. They feel hounded and frightened and are quite literally "disappeared" off the streets of Britain. Some small charities and day centres that help the homeless already exclude foreign and/or European nationals from accessing the services they provide. In addition, freedom of information requests made by activists have revealed that major homeless charities such as St Mungo's and Thames Reach are involved in helping to catch and apprehend EEA rough sleepers.
The 2016 budget did not specify how much money was allocated to the scheme, unlike other homelessness reduction schemes specified. The scheme operates in considerable secrecy, targeting a demographic that is both vulnerable and locked out by the inability to communicate effectively in English.
Rough sleeping is seldom a lifestyle choice: many EEA nationals affected are in employment but receive low wages, and overpriced accommodation is sometimes uninhabitable. Many work for exploitative agencies that offer temporary contracts and poor conditions as well as cutting corners on labour laws.
The vulnerability of being homeless and foreign also makes such individuals more susceptible to forms of modern-day slavery, which is far more prevalent than is assumed, as evidenced in the recent case of 18 Polish men trafficked to work at a Sports Direct warehouse. This places such individuals in a double bind, as the same agency, immigration compliance and enforcement (ICE) is responsible for dealing with human trafficking and apprehending EEA rough sleepers.
In addition, a fivefold increase in the number of EU nationals held at immigration removal centres was reported in January as a further deterrent measure. Pending deportation, most individuals held under Operation Adoze are held at such facilities, for periods ranging from days to months.
While the policy serves the fearmongering and demonisation of the homeless and migrants agenda, it practically achieves little else. Previous failed schemes have cost taxpayers millions of pounds, money that could be far better allocated to tackling the causes of rough sleeping and homelessness.
If Operation Adoze and its national rollout is such a success, why is the Government so secretive and hesitant about qualifying this success, especially concerning what happens to deportees once removed? The reported success of the policy is more significantly undermined by the fact that rough sleeper numbers have risen for EEA nationals, like the rest of the population, while it has been in force.
Aisha Maniar is a London-based human rights activist.