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November 5, 2014

Falling through the net

One group that seem most likely to fall through the ever growing holes in the safety net of our system of welfare, is the refugee and asylum seeker community. Although sometimes deeply traumatised by their previous experiences, these individuals and families are often treated with a callous disregard for their circumstances. At Positive Action in Housing’s AGM last week, we heard some appalling stories of how the system had forced many into destitution. We also heard of some heart-warming stories of simple kindnesses and human generosity such as from those who volunteer through its Lifeline project.


The Lifeline began in 2005 as a response to the increasing numbers of refugees coming to our charity who were left without almost every basic human need such as food, shelter, a GP or financial support of any kind, denied recourse to public funds, emergency hostels or the right to work. The Project provides short-term, direct humanitarian relief in the form of shelter and food to destitute people from Scotland’s ‘refugee’ communities. The Project also helps service users with practical resources and support to avoid becoming ‘invisible’ citizens. It helps service users, especially young people and women, to avoid being vulnerable to exploitation, both labour or sexual, by offering resources to get back into the legal system with a view to achieving citizenship, if at all possible. In many cases, our intervention has resulted in destitute people getting leave to remain in the UK. Interestingly, there is often no rhyme or reason for these home office decisions.

We provide a Hardship Fund which gives out small cash sums for food and essential needs e.g. medicine, urgent travel. In some cases, we will pay for cheap hostel accommodation. We try to provide some form of assistance to everyone to ensure they do not become street-homeless. The Hardship Fund is paid for by donations from members of the public and charitable trusts. We have a database of accommodation volunteers who agree to offer up space in their home to someone who is destitute for a few days, weeks, or even longer. We have a system to ensure destitute refugees and their hosts form the best match. Ultimately, this is a purely voluntary arrangement between both parties but we do our best to make the arrangement rewarding for all concerned. We desperately need more volunteers who are prepared to welcome people into their homes.

The project provides a service which cannot be provided by the public sector or any other agency, and relies on donations from members of the public and charitable trusts. The need for the Project has grown dramatically. Between April 2008 and March 2009, we supported 276 people, including 21 pregnant women and 13 families with 27 children. 37% of people were sleeping rough when they approached us. This is a 25% increase on 2008.

A volunteer with the Lifeline Project

Alison Swinfen is an education professor at the University of Glasgow, researching languages and intercultural studies. Over the last few years she has provided and spoke to us about her experiences.

“I’ve been volunteering for two or three years now. The first person who came was actually with us for about 5 months which I think is Positive Action’s record, and they sent us a lovely box of chocolates after that. And then we had a couple of folk for just two or three weeks, then someone else longer term and then another for about 6 weeks.

“Being in the house when Joyce was reunited with her sons whom she’d lost touch with was incredibly special. It was just such a happy moment and to be able to share that was a huge privilege. Watching Shah Lin’s English get better and better too was amazing. When she first arrived she could barely speak but by the time she left she was much more confident, and we’re seeing the same thing with Rima at the moment, who’s just turned 17. She’s brought High School Musical and Dawson’s Creek into our lives. We just love having her around and learning how to look after a teenager.

“She’s learning to cook now so the house is full of the smell of lovely Eritrean food. Obviously when people stay they kind of want to give you something back so we’ve eaten some really amazing stuff.

Shah Lin was incredible, when she got her money from Positive Action in Housing she used to go to the Chinese supermarket and cook amazing stuff for us in the evenings. We’d come in from work at the end of the week and there’d be this fabulous food waiting. We used to say ‘no, we’ll cook this week’ but it was really important to her. I think it gave her a sense of worth that she was able to do that.

“We’re just sharing a home, which means different music, different books, different conversations. Initially people have taken a little bit of time to settle and gradually developed a structure and routine around ours. And then gradually we’d involve them a bit more, and then start eating together and cooking together. And we do have a lot of laughter in the house. It was lovely at Christmas, we had a couple of people back who’d stayed with us in the past. It was a really special day. We just sat round sharing, telling stories and remembering things that happened when they were here, just things that were funny.

“I would absolutely recommend volunteering, it’s transforming in so many ways. My advice would be that it’s really important to remember that the people you welcome are just normal people who need to sleep and eat. Keeping a good routine and normal structure I think is important, not stepping out of your own routine and not going overboard. Some of the folk you’ll stay in touch with and they’ll be friends for life potentially, others won’t be which is just normal, because you’re dealing with normal people.”