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Nothing like the promised land
When recently arrived EU immigrants become destitute or homeless, they can't turn to the government for help. Alexandra Topping meets charities working with London's Polish community that step into the gap
When Wactaw Ziajka was dropped off by an ambulance at the Upper Room, a homeless charity with links to the Polish community in Hammersmith, he was still wearing his hospital pyjamas and dressing gown. Little was known about him apart from the fact that he had had an accident on a building site, had gone though extensive brain surgery and had spent the last three months in hospital. He had no documents, no idea where he lived or what he should do.
Sitting in the offices of the Upper Room, a small, independent church-run charity, the 49-year-old rubs his salt-and-pepper beard. He leans forward, rolls up the leg of his trousers to show that he still has the bright green pyjamas on underneath. "It helps to keep me warm," he says in Polish.
Ambulance workers took Ziajka to the Upper Room because there was nowhere else for him to go. As a new arrival in Britain he cannot claim housing benefit or job seeker's allowance until he has worked for 12 months, so most hostels - which rely on housing benefit for their income - would not take him in. "If it had not been for this place I don't know what I would have done," he says. "I would have been out on the street."
Ziajka is just one of many migrant workers from EU accession who find themselves destitute and homeless after coming to Britain, says Bruce Marquart, project manager at the Upper Room. "The main problem for A8 migrant workers [from those countries that joined the EU in 2004] is the lack of any kind of safety net," he says. "There is a small but significant number of extreme cases who because of industrial accidents or the inability to find work are forced into destitution, poverty and suffering."
Today charity leaders will discuss the impact of European migration on the voluntary sector at the NCVO annual conference. Ewa Sadowska, from the Barka Foundation - a Polish charity that helps homeless Poles to return home - will explain that her organisation was asked by desperate charities to help with the situation in London in 2006. "We take people home who are on the border of life and death, if they stayed here they would die on the streets," she says. Alistair Murray from Housing Justice Unleash - who, alongside the Simon community, formed a partnership with Barka in the UK in August 2006 - will argue that the government has a moral responsibility to help those to whom it has opened its borders.
"Small voluntary organisations are having to meet a need because of government policy failure. I am still extremely concerned that people can come here, have no help and if they fall into trouble after six months, it is tough luck," he says. "It is not a moral policy."
Migrants can apply for benefits if they can prove they have been working continuously for 12 months, with no more than a four-week break. But to do so they have to register with the Workers Registration Scheme at a cost of £90, and anecdotal evidence suggests many do not bother. Of 520 people who have used the Upper Room jobs service, only two registered, and they both worked for the charity. Out of 562,000 arrivals into the UK in 2005-06, only 16,000, or 3%, had claimed job seeker's allowance, incapacity benefit or income support within six months of registering for an NI number, according to official figures.
"The Workers Registration Scheme is a stealth tax on migrant workers and another barrier for A8 workers receiving benefits," says Marquart. "There seems to be an official ideology of starvation - these migrants are welcome here to support our economy but as soon as they cost anything at all they are banished."
It is a problem that is not going away, say the charities. Homeless Link, the umbrella group for homeless charities recently conducted a survey of rough sleepers in London and found 18% were from central or eastern European countries, in response to its members' growing concern. A similar survey of day centres, outreach teams and night shelters found that 15% of people who used the services were A8 nationals and more than three quarters of organisations were confronted with the problem.
A better life?
Migrant workers are attracted by adverts in their home countries promising work, accommodation and a better life, but it often does not turn out like that says Philip Burke, a trustee of the Simon Community, which provides a street service for homeless people. Often jobs do not materialise or are short term and accommodation is poor, cramped or non-existent. "Being on the streets leaves these people vulnerable to criminal gangs, alcohol abuse and all types of exploitation," he says. He estimates that around a third of the people that the charity helps are now from eastern or central Europe.
Jenny Edwards, chief executive of Homeless Link, says the issue was more difficult to deal with because it happened overnight. "It was a problem from day one," she says. "Day centres in London suddenly discovered this entirely new group." And it continues to have a significant impact on the provision of homeless services in the UK, she adds: "It is inevitable that voluntary agencies step in when there is a need, pending official services noticing there is a problem."
Small charities around the country are trying to bridge the gap, but a lack of funding and the size of the organisations involved mean that provision is far from comprehensive. The Barka Foundation UK repatriates Poles who have become destitute as well as providing advice about everything from building contractors' exams to how to get a bank account. They also invite members of the Barka Community in Poland, where they have a comprehensive network of social cooperatives, to speak to fellow Poles and persuade them to go home. "There are many reasons people do not want to go home: unfulfilled promises to bring money home, for example. There is a lot of shame," says Sadwoska. "People often hope that things will get better."
The East European Advice Centre also gives help with, among other things, housing, immigration law and education and several other homeless agencies have employed Eastern European-language speaking caseworkers.
The Upper Room provides some of the most diverse support in the capital. It launched its jobs club, UR4jobs, in November 2006 and also provides information on living and working in the UK, English classes and bilingual training. It is also running a pilot project with the Polish Psychologists Club providing free counselling in Polish and a movement therapy session for women.
There are signs that the government is listening to the complaints of this small, but vocal, part of the voluntary sector. Calls for a welcome centre and improved information for eastern Europeans arriving in Britain have so far been ignored, but Homeless Link have been commissioned to develop an action plan to reduce levels of rough sleeping among people from Central and Eastern Europe which will be completed in March.
Help cannot come too soon for many of those who are at the Upper Room to get a hot meal. It is a treat tonight: bigos made with real polish sausages. A young man who does not want to be identified says it is his favourite meal, and one that he has not had in the three years he has been in the UK. During that time he has held several jobs and has lived in squats, parks, and now in cramped shared accommodation. At the moment he is living with six other people in a two-room flat. It is not ideal but his friends were homeless, and having been in that situation himself, he could not turn them away. Asked if the UK has lived up to his expectations he pauses for a second, and says: "I didn't think it would be a paradise, but I didn't expect it to be hell on earth."
last year we stayed at a place run by these people - up near Ustka.
very simple - chalets under the trees - no mod cons (had just been opened) but the idea behind it was intriguing .. intention is to use the profits to help fund their 'rescue' missions hauling people back from the UK.
we hope to go back again this summer
There are problems for Poles not just in London.
POLES LIVING IN BUSHES 'SACKED AT CHRISTMAS'
09:00 - 23 February 2008
"WE were sacked on Christmas Eve and have been living rough, far from home, ever since."That is the claim of three East European migrant workers discovered living in bushes near Llanelli's plush Pentre Nicklaus Village this week.
Speaking through an interpreter, brothers Mario and Thomas and their friend Mark told the Post how they were brought to West Wales from Warsaw last October on a one-way ticket by a UK-based recruitment agency.
The three worked long hours in various jobs within the meat trade before being thrown on the scrapheap and left to fend for themselves the day before Christmas Day.
Thomas, the younger of the brothers, said: "We were promised jobs in Wales, and wanted to come to earn money for our families back home."
Thomas told how he and his brother Mario worked in "conditions no human should witness" in a slaughterhouse in West Wales, for £180 a week minus £50 accommodation, before being transferred to a meat packing company near Llanelli. Following a mix-up over starting dates, caused by the language barrier, the two turned up a day late, on Christmas Eve, only to be sacked on the spot.
Thomas said: "After we were sacked, we were told to leave our lodgings. It was either the bushes or a park bench. We had no money for anything else."
When asked how they felt about their situation, a dejected-looking Thomas said: "You can't imagine how we feel."
Now the three are faced with the difficult task of earning enough money to return to Poland.
Thomas said: "We have been to the JobCentre and walked around every firm in Llanelli asking for work but have found nothing.
"I had to borrow a lot of money to come here. I cannot return to a load of debt. I have to make enough money to clear it before I go back."
Despite their ordeal, the three men still had a kind word for the majority of people in Llanelli.
Mark, who claims to have been laid off after an accident in the workplace, said: "On the whole, we have found the Welsh people to be very kind and very polite.We are very grateful to the people who have helped us so far."
The plight of the three has shocked many, with news of their situation even reaching the attention of the Polish community in London.
Iwona Kadluczka, a journalist on the London-based Polish Times, said: "It's a really big shock for Polish people. Usually they come to Britain and find nice careers."
Asked how a situation like this could happen, Ms Kadluczka said: "Some people in Poland believe when they come to Britain it will be easy to find a job. It's not as easy as they think.
"Some don't do their research before coming, and find it really difficult. Sometimes they are exploited by agencies and ruthless gang masters."
Halina Ashley, from Llanelli's Polish Centre, lays the duty of care firmly on the Government and, in this case, Carmarthenshire Council. She said: "In European law, it is the responsibility of the host country to look after the migrant workers, they are European citizens."
Carmarthenshire Council housing boss Robin Staines said: "This is the first incident of this type in the county involving migrant workers. We are working closely with voluntary sector partners and local Polish groups to identify potential accommodation solutions for those concerned.
"This will be based on an individual assessment of needs, why they left their previous accommodation and their status, in terms of eligibility to receive public services."
For now at least the three men have been given a respite from the cold after the intervention of Good Samaritans.
Polish Centre manager Jeff Hopkins has been instrumental in finding the three temporary accommodation in a guest house with the help of the Red Cross in Swansea.
He said: "We have teamed up with the Red Cross in Swansea and managed to find some funds to put them up in a guesthouse for a few nights but this is just a temporary measure. We just don't have the funds, we don't get any support from the government. We would love to hear from any charities or organisations willing to help."
Not nice, but hold on just a mo ...
A bloke without health contributions gets brain surgery on the NHS and 3 months bed rest.
You have to prove your social security/health contributions before getting Polish health service treatment - even if it is life-threatening and you've been booked in for emergency surgery. The difference is that these Poles were poor and had only just arrived.
You don't need health contributions to get emergency treatment in the UK. They try to retrieve the cost through reciprocal arrangements. There are special government allocations for overseas visitors. Once you are in the system they do what is necessary to get people back on their feet. The alternative I guess is to have people who arrive here dying in the street, which is simply not acceptable in a civilised country. As well as this if someone is contagious it becomes a wider public health issue.
The chap who had brain surgery probably has a strong case for compensation against the building company, who failed to give him a safe environment to work in.