Housing survivors of torture: is enough being done?

imagesHailu is a refugee who experienced horrible treatment at the hands of authorities in his country before coming to the UK. He now suffers from significant mental health problems including PTSD and depression. Hailu hears voices and is unable to concentrate for long periods of time. His English language skills are very low, hardly enough to get by. Hailu was in the NASS support system (National Asylum Support Services) and was moved about a few times. As a result he did not manage to stay long enough in one borough to get a local connection for the purposes of housing.

When he was finally granted Refugee status, Hailu’s NASS accommodation and support were terminated. He managed to claim ESA but found himself homeless as the local authority felt he did not have the required local connection to be accommodated by them. While the appeal is being fought, Hailu has had to sleep rough which made his mental wellbeing deteriorate sharply; the flashbacks have returned and so have the voices and suicidal thoughts. The fact that the local authority were happy to ‘discharge their duty’ and put a vulnerable, mentally ill man on the streets is very worrying.  He was let down in a big way.

A Southwark based day centre for refugees referred Hailu to Z2k and through the Next Door Project, working with partners Humanity Homes, Hailu was accommodated in the hostel jointly managed by the two organisations while his housing appeal is processed. He continues to struggle with mental illness and requires significant support to deal with everyday issues. Z2K provides him with a basic Tenancy support service but he clearly needs a lot more support than is currently available to him.

Sadly Hailu’s case is by no means isolated. I have worked for Z2K for only two and half months but within that period I have already encountered a significant number of similar cases through Advice Plus (Drop in Service) and referrals from other agencies. There is a glaring gap in the provision of non-medical services to survivors of torture and trauma within the boroughs we have the most contact with, ie. Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham. Appropriate housing is one such service but vital general wellbeing services are sorely needed. The few Church based services available can only offer limited support which does not go far enough to address this client group’s needs. Vulnerable survivors of torture are expected to go through the stress of finding their own accommodation but sadly most are not in any shape to handle that.

Some of the people who accessed Advice Plus are staying with relatives because the accommodation they had been given was not suitable and was aggravating their conditions so they left it. Others are just incapable of finding their own private accommodation and resort to sofa surfing or sleeping rough on street. One or two abandoned their accommodation because they could not manage without support, which in turn gives rise to issues of intentional homelessness further down the line when they try to access public housing again.

Survivors of torture are a specially vulnerable group that needs tailored housing support services to address their particular issues and help them rebuild their shattered lives. In some cases survivors of torture find it difficult to engage with mainstream services owing to experiences they had with authorities in their countries. The fact that these services make a point to give users a hard time is not helping at all. As in Hailu’s case the treatment he got from the local authority significantly made his situation harder and eroded any little trust he had in the authorities in general and stop engaging with vital services.

A lot more needs to be done to ensure this section of society get the vital support needed to access accommodation and sustain their tenancies. As there is not enough being done, maybe this is as good a time as any for someone to begin lobbying the authorities to do more for survivors of torture. Without support, they will remain on the periphery getting into the housing system and falling back out. Organisations such as Z2K are doing their best but the impact they are making can hardly be noticed because the demand for services is too great and continues to grow.

“The greatest tragedy is not the brutality of the evil people, but rather the silence of the good people.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

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