When a homeless kitchen worker was taken fatally ill beside an entrance to the House of Commons this week, it laid bare the extent of the UK’s rough sleeping crisis — and how it is now far more than just a British concern.
Gyula Remes, a 43-year-old from Hungary, was found in an underpass frequented by members of parliament on their way to Westminster tube station. His death hours later — which a friend attributed to a cigarette spiked with the drug spice — has sparked off soul-searching among MPs.
“There is something rotten in Westminster when MPs walk past dying homeless people on their way to work,” tweeted Labour’s David Lammy. According to the Office for National Statistics, 597 homeless people died in England and Wales last year, a 24 per cent increase over the past five years.
Remes was the second homeless person this year to die near the MPs’ entrance to Westminster station. Neither came from the UK.
Instead, both Remes, who had recently started work as an assistant chef, and Marcos Amaral Gourgel, a Portuguese national who died in February, were part of the growing army of people from other parts of the EU sleeping rough on Britain’s streets.
The difficulties and uncertainties confronted by such people — and the obstacles to their potential routes out of the street — are likely to be compounded by Brexit, several charities warn.
Without help acquiring legal status, “many will be left stuck in a cycle of homelessness — vulnerable to exploitation and forced labour, and excluded from working legally and accessing mainstream support”, said Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, a charity that focuses on the homeless.
As migration to the UK under EU rules has hit new levels over the decades, so too has the number of homeless people from continental Europe, who account for more than a third of all rough sleepers in London, according to a recent Crisis report.
Overall, there are more than 3,000 nationals from other EU countries sleeping rough in the UK, the report says.
Many want to stay in the country. “I have a dream that keeps me going: I want to work in the British police,” says Bogdan, a 38-year-old Pole who has been sleeping rough in the City of London for five months.
Since he arrived in 2009, Bogdan, who did not give his surname, has lost his wife, who has left him; his job as a kitchen porter; and his home. But he has recently found a job in a café and insists: “I am not leaving.”
The British government’s view is likely to be different. It has already tried to deport rough sleepers from countries in the European Economic Area — which includes all the EU states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
But late last year the High Court rejected the government’s argument that rough sleeping was an abuse of the free movement rights of EU nationals, ruling instead that the deportation policy was unlawful and discriminatory.
Now homeless people from the EU — who number far more than just the rough sleepers — face the challenge of staying in the UK after Brexit.
Theresa May’s Brexit deal establishes a transition period after which the free movement of EU nationals would end early in the 2020s. But if Britain crashes out of the bloc without a deal on March 29 next year, free movement would end far sooner.
Rough sleepers from continental Europe, like all citizens from across the EU in the UK, will be required to apply for so-called settled status or a temporary residency permit from the Home Office.
A Home Office spokesperson said the government was working with organisations representing vulnerable EU citizens and providing up to £9m in grants to ensure they were supported in residence applications.
“EU citizens are our friends, family and neighbours, and we want them to stay,” the spokesperson said.
But Matthew Oakley from WPI Economics, a research group, highlighted the risk of EU nationals falling into illegal status after the transition period — which he said was particularly great for people who were or had been homeless.
Questioning whether such people knew of their need to apply for settled status, he noted that they might not have the required documentation, and neither be able to access the online application form nor to pay its £65 cost.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a campaign group, adds that under the UK’s updated immigration rules the Home Office could refuse homeless applicants because of their failure to exercise EU treaty rights to work, study or be self-sufficient.
Underlying many charities’ concerns is the fear that without a reliable and realistic route to settled status, many homeless people from outside the UK will instead descend into a world of insecurity and illegality.
Mr Sparkes of Crisis argued that the Home Office’s previous policy of expelling EEA rough sleepers would deter many people from registering. “Many migrants will now be afraid to make an application for fear of deportation,” he said.
The worry is that tougher rules for European nationals will, rather than persuading people to return to their countries of origin, only exacerbate Britain’s homeless crisis.
“Brexit or no Brexit, I am staying,” said Mateusz, a homeless man from southern Poland, who arrived in London 12 years ago and has spent the last five sleeping rough. “There is nothing for me back there.”
Fearful of deportation, Mateusz has also taken a step that may put settled status out of reach. He has destroyed his identity papers.
Mateusz’s name has been changed at his request.
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