LEDAS (Leeds Destitute Asylum-seekers Support) is a new charity, recently granted charitable status. It has been set up by local people, including Catholic parishioners from Leeds. Sally Brown is one of the Trustees and describes how LEDAS aims to offer Dignity in Destitution.
Asylum seekers are often the bottom of the pile when it comes to support and sympathy.
Each person has their own story of how and why they have made the difficult decision to leave their home and maybe their entire family, to make a long, often terrifying and dangerous journey to another country. They are frequently traumatised, bewildered and confused by the hostile reception they get from the Home Office, when they finally get to the UK.
They are people like us, who had a home, a job, a normal life and a simple wish to continue living in peace. War, persecution and discrimination are common reasons for their need to escape, sometimes to save their lives. The choice is not made lightly, and their hope is to rebuild a life somewhere free from persecution and conflict. Sadly, they are likely to find the UK a less welcoming place than they hoped and have the added issues of language, isolation, poverty and unemployment to deal with.
Asylum seekers will initially be given Home Office support if their case is thought to be worthy of consideration. If their case is turned down after further consideration, they will then be left destitute, with no recourse to public funds and no accommodation. This can happen very quickly, leaving them street homeless. One of the most distressing problems for destitute asylum seekers is lack of shelter. They rely on charities to find them accommodation of some sort and, of course, anything is better than being on the streets and vulnerable.
The WYDAN night shelter model of support was one solution, offering a bed for the night, a hot meal and breakfast. Usually there were no showers and they slept in one room on beds of the folding variety. (The beds needed to be transported between venues, which changed every week or two from church to church.) The volunteers involved in the night shelters offered food, a welcoming smile and a chat. Staying with other people in the same situation may have been helpful but sharing a space with up to nine strangers from different backgrounds, countries and speaking a variety of languages may also have been enormously stressful. The guests were usually obliged to leave by 9am and stay outside all day until 5 or 6pm, when they could return.
The night shelter is no longer a safe option for guests or volunteers due to Coronavirus and this is likely to be the case for some considerable time.
Feedback from night shelter guests tells us that ideally, they would value privacy, access to showers, their own space and security for their belongings. They would also like to be able to prepare their own food. The guests are always extremely grateful for any support that is offered, but night shelters cannot fulfil most of these basic needs. Many of the guests stay in night shelter accommodation for months and a few for years. It is not an ideal base for this group of people to work on their asylum case and gain Home Office-supported accommodation.
Other temporary solutions to destitution are hosts who offer a room for one or two nights, maybe more. This necessitates moving frequently and not knowing where and if you will have accommodation for the next night. This option was being provided by LASSN, but due to Coronavirus, they are currently unable to offer emergency accommodation, though longer term hosting has continued.
The night shelter guests are being supported by Leeds City Council at present and are in hostel accommodation (as a result of the ‘everybody in’ initiative during the pandemic) This may well come to an end in September, at which time, there will be very little option for this group of people.
This situation is clearly not ideal and there are models for providing housing to destitute asylum seekers, which depend variously, on landlords or individuals offering a house which is currently uninhabited, churches offering unused clergy accommodation, empty homes sourced from housing associations, or raising funds to buy a house.
Currently in Leeds there is St Monica’s running two houses for destitute female asylum seekers and Grace House for four destitute male asylum seekers, run by Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network.
One of the trustees has been involved in helping LASSN set up Grace House and 5 months on from the first men moving in, the benefits for the residents are clear. Despite the pandemic, they have a secure base and can live independently. They have had support from volunteer befrienders throughout, to manage any issues which inevitably arise with strangers learning to live together and manage their different cultures and beliefs. The house has four bedrooms, a large basement kitchen, a living room and 2 bathrooms, as well as a small garden. The men have taken responsibility for looking after the house. They have made the garden their own, growing sunflowers and tomatoes amongst other things. It has given them a sense of purpose and helped their mental health, which is inevitably affected by their personal circumstances and the stress of this difficult time.
We believe that offering decent accommodation to asylum seekers should be possible and our aim is to find two houses, accommodating four men in each. The properties and residents will be managed and supported by volunteers and financed by grants and charitable donations. This aim is supported by various organisations around Leeds, including PAFRAS (Positive Action For Refugees and Asylum Seekers), British Red Cross, LASSN, NACCOM (the No Accommodation network).
If you feel you would like to help with this project, we welcome financial support, offers of befriending for residents or practical help with maintenance and preparation of houses for habitation. Most urgently we need to find property which we can prepare for group living and subsequently manage. The trustees of LEDAS are working hard to make this happen. If you feel you can offer help please email firstname.lastname@example.org and if you could offer financial support our bank details are: Leeds Destitute Asylum Seeker Support, Sort code 05-00-85 A/C No 36279195