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A thousand small bricks to make a home for all

United Kingdom
27-10-2016-Brighton3-590.jpg

A full house enjoys a performance at The Rose Hill Tavern community venue, Brighton © Helen Rebecca Lucas

There is a very real story of 2016 Britain which tells of hysterical anti-migrant headlines, increasingly enraging racism from public figures, lists of foreign workers and foreign children, a rise in hate crime and an outcry about refugee children who look 'too old' to be helped. But there is also another story – one that's growing from the grassroots. Communities determined to say that these people do not speak for us and there is space and safety for anyone who needs it.

One example is in Brighton and Hove, on the south coast of England, where people are clubbing together to provide long term, independent housing to migrants with no other access to support and no medium or long term prospect of secure immigration status.

The Thousand 4 £1000 project aims to sign up 1,000 residents to standing orders of £1 a month. It is thought to be the first project of its kind: providing a safe and secure place to live on a long term basis, paid for by hundreds of local people. Donations stand at over £650 a month and are going up all the time.

Thousand 4 £1000 was launched by Brighton Migrants Solidarity (BMS), frustrated about the amount of people they met who were either street homeless or 'sofa surfing' while their immigration status was uncertain.

Helen Rebecca Lucas

Official statistics reveal house prices in Brighton and Hove were nearly five times higher in 2015 than in 1995 – the biggest increase in the country. It has one of the highest levels of rough sleepers in the country. With housing such a big issue in the city, housing for migrants with no access to money and support seemed almost impossible, despite the number of groups that work to support migrants in the city.

'The government has a deliberate policy of making life miserable for people. It's an extremely hostile environment for the wrong sort of migrants,' says Jacob Berkson of BMS.

The turning point for BMS came as Europe's refugee crisis ballooned in the summer of 2015 and more people were actively looking for a practical way to help. They decided that there must be at least 1,000 people in Brighton and Hove – a city with a population of over 247,800 known for its more progressive politics – who could spare £1 a month to provide practical support.

One year after the idea was first raised, the first three residents moved into a house rented through Thousand 4 £1000, with furniture donated by other local residents. They currently get the house at a reduced rent, through a housing association and managed by a co-operative but from January 2017 the project aims to provide somewhere more long term at market rate.

One of the residents is Ahmed*, who is originally from East Africa, and had spent two years homeless in Brighton, sleeping on friends' sofas and eventually wandering the streets.

'My favourite moment was when one resident was pleased he'd forgotten his keys. He thought it was is brilliant – he hadn't had keys to forget for a long time'

'I was on medication for depression. I was just hanging around Brighton because I was scared to sleep anywhere,' he says.

Despite having lived in the city for 16 years Ahmed has never had secure immigration status and for the last two years has been trying to get his visa renewed with the Home Office, unable to work or access state support.

'Now I feel much better,' he says. 'I'm at home in a nice house because of nice people.'

'I signed up to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society to have housing,' says local resident Ed Jones. 'There are many people who can not legally work and have no recourse to public funds, for example because their asylum applications have been refused but can't return to their home country due to war or the threat of violence. Many of these people end up being homeless as they have no alternative.'

NACCOM (No Accommodation Network) estimates that about 6,000 people a year in Britain come to the end of asylum process but do not leave the country, mostly because there is nowhere else for them to go. In 2015, 64 per cent of asylum applications were initially refused.

Others could have had their asylum claim granted but find themselves homeless as they can be evicted from any accommodation paid for by the government just four weeks after they get their status. The Refugee Council estimates that these problems could have affected 9,768 refugees in 2015.

'During that time people are generally so vulnerable and uncertain about the future,' says Lucy Smith, Communications, Media and Advocacy Worker at NACCOM. She says this limbo can last anything from a few weeks to many years.

'It can be really devastating for people who often will have worked or been highly educated in their home country. It can have a big impact on people's mental health and physical health as well.'

BMS have also run a spare room network in Brighton, which is a City of Sanctuary, but believe that the Thousand 4 £1000 approach provides more independence and better enables people to actively take part in their community. It is also a way to show collective solidarity.

A banner of the Thousand 4 £1000 initiative in Brighton

Helen Rebecca Lucas

For Ahmed, Thousand 4 1000 has come just in time. 'I thought about committing suicide,' he says. 'I used to ask myself, why me.' He says he is still under threat of deportation to a place he has not lived in for 32 years but having the house has made him less anxious.

BMS also works with other migrant support groups, including Brighton Voices in Exile who work with the residents on their cases. They also provide a monthly bus ticket and £25 a week.

Berkson is happy with the way the project is going so far. 'My favourite moment was when one resident was really pleased to tell me that he'd forgotten his keys. He said “I realised that I'd forgotten my keys and I thought this is brilliant – I haven't had keys to forget for a long time.”'

Once Thousand 4 £1000 has exceeded its £1000 a month target, they will look at housing more people in rented accommodation, with a long term aim of buying a property.

While he previously felt rejected, Ahmed now feels welcomed by Brighton: 'I'm very proud of this city. It's a nice city, I love it and it's my home.'

Find out more about Thousand 4 £1000 on the Brighton Migrant Solidarity website.

*This name has been changed to protect the person's safety and privacy.