Women experiencing homeless with no recourse to public funds

Monday, 24 July 2017 - 5:31pm

On 29th March 2017, Homeless Link ran a Spotlight on Supporting Women with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). 

homeless woman

During the day we heard from fantastic speakers about the work they are doing to support women with NRPF. One of our speakers was Pippa Hockton from the charity Street Talk, here Pippa describes the work they do and why support for women with NRPF can mean the difference between life and death:

Street Talk works with women in street-based prostitution, as well as with women who have escaped from traffickers. We are an outreach service, taking one-to-one therapy, group work, and art therapy into hostels or day centres for vulnerable women. Since Street Talk was set up in 2005, increasing numbers of women with no recourse to public funds are finding their way to us. Cuts in legal aid have made access to immigration lawyers very difficult for people with NRPF to establish their right to remain in this country, which has a domino effect. Without recourse to public funds and an entitlement to housing vulnerable women drift onto the street where they encounter dangers, including the danger of being re-trafficked.

Last week, in an evening drop-in centre for homeless women in King’s Cross, I met two sisters who have been rough sleeping on the streets of London for two years due to having no recourse to public funds. Listening to their stories, I felt I had slipped back into Dickensian London. The women, who are in their thirties now, were brought to London from the Middle East some years ago by a family member. They came in on legal visas, for a holiday but found themselves exploited. Their relative kept them there by withholding their documents, as well as by making them vulnerable when they were forced to overstay their visa. By the time they escaped, the relative who trafficked them had disappeared and taken with him their documentation and any evidence of their story. They have been advised by the UK Border Agency that they are illegal immigrants who face prosecution and the possibility of a prison sentence. Their fear of punishment and their failure to access the help they need from an immigration lawyer has pushed them onto the streets.

I met two sisters who have been rough sleeping on the streets of London for two years due to having no recourse to public funds. 

They took to sleeping in the doorway of a printer’s shop because it was sheltered and it seems the shop owner knows about them and allows them to sleep there each night. Opposite the printer’s shop is a shoe repair shop, the owner of which has made one of the sisters an improvised fold away camp bed, which he leaves out for them in the printer’s doorway each night. The other sister is in poor health and doesn’t have the mobility to get onto a camp bed. For her, he has crafted a kind of folding deck chair with a leather seat, which she sleeps in each night. Each morning the sisters fold away their improvised beds and when the shoe repairer opens his shop he takes them in, leaving them out again at closing time for the women. Among the shopkeepers, the women have found compassion and generosity.

Both of the sisters have lived through trauma, they desperately miss their families, one of them is coping with serious ill health, without any interventions and now they are living in constant fear of arrest and imprisonment. They are living day-by-day, making good use of services for the homeless, getting by, avoiding trouble with a quiet dignity, passing their days in libraries, museums and sometimes cafes, where they know they can sit without having to buy anything. I was intensely moved by their resilience, as well as by the courage and the equanimity with which these two women lived with the injustice of their situation. At the same time, I was at a loss as to how Street Talk could help these women. We offer therapy and there is no doubt that they have suffered psychologically, but they need asylum first, a safe roof over their head, enough money to buy sanitary products, food as well being able to contact their family. Therapy can’t do any of that; it can’t right an injustice.  When the women are safe, then it will be time to offer them therapy, to work through the trauma and loss, which they have lived through since they were trafficked from their home and separated from their family.

Sadly, more and more women living through some version of the story of these two sisters, are finding their way to Street Talk.  Whilst I believe passionately in the importance of therapy to enable people to overcome mental suffering, I am challenged by the limitations of what Street Talk can offer to people who are being dehumanised and deprived of their basic human rights. This is a new development for Street Talk. We used to offer therapy to every woman who asked for our help, but there are women with NRPF who are in danger and who have more urgent needs. It seems that to offer therapy to someone who is suffering daily, at the sharp end of social injustice, adds to their oppression because it misses the point. From the outset, Street Talk has had a partnership model, because we have always taken the therapy out to hostels and day centres. However, there is now a need to work closely with other agencies who can support women to establish their basic human rights. Women who have no recourse to public funds have the same rights as every other woman to live safely and with dignity.  

To hear more about Pippa’s amazing work at Street Talk please visit: www.streettalkuk.org

For information on the other speakers from that day and the support they offer please see links and resources below:

Anna Miller UK Policy and Advocacy Manager for Doctors of the World UK providing access to healthcare for people with NRPF.

Heike Langbien Advice worker for Refugees and Migrants for The Notre Dame Refugee Centre providing immigration, housing, and welfare advice to refugees and migrants.

Jasbinder Bhatoa is a qualified solicitor with experience practising in family and immigration law for Rights of Women: providing immigration and asylum law services and projects including the Athena Project. 

Tommy Cloherty Programme Co-ordinator for the Housing Justice Hosting programme, hosting asylum seekers and destitute migrants with volunteer hosts all over London.

Abi Brunswick Director at Project 17 works with families experiencing exceptional poverty to improve their access to local authority support. 

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Pippa Hockton

Founder and Director of Street Talk

Pippa Hockton is the founder and director of Street Talk. The organisation was set up to take mental health care, in particular counselling, to women in street-based prostitution and to women who have escaped from traffickers.