Author: Ben Quinn and Aaron Walawalkar
Stuck in a bureaucratic limbo that left him unable to return home to India but also unable to work or access services in Britain, Sodhi Singh spent more than a decade sleeping rough on the streets of London.
“They don’t want me in India and they don’t want me in the UK. I’d rather be dead than living on the streets,” he said, two weeks before he died in hospital this month after being found unconscious in the car park of Redbridge council’s offices in east London.
Singh, who was 50 and leaves behind a wife and daughter in the Punjab region, where he spent the first half of his life farming rice, sunflowers and potatoes, was the 10th homeless person to die in the borough over the past year. Six of the 10 were Indian men, including Singh’s friend Kawal Singh, 61, who was found dead in August on the steps of the same council offices.
With winter approaching, the disproportionate number of Indian men in the death toll has led local charity workers to call for a Windrush-style taskforce to be established to help those who want to return home. People who were trafficked illegally into Britain are now ageing or ailing after years of black-market labour and are unable to access services after being designated as having no recourse to public funds.
Without resources or papers to prove their identities and origins, they complain of hitting a wall with their own high commission in London when attempting to get a passport.
“There are others who I am really worried about. It’s really now a race to save their lives,” said Tahir Butt, a community engagement officer with the charity Serving Humanity, who had managed to arrange a meeting with the Home Office for Kawal Singh, but which came too late.
Five days after Sodhi Singh’s death, Redbridge coincidentally received a visit from the homelessness minister, Heather Wheeler, as she toured areas funded by the government’s new rough sleeping initiative.
Wheeler, who told the Guardian in March that she did not accept the suggestion that welfare changes and council cuts had contributed to a rise in rough sleepers, was pressed to take action to help those unable to access government support due to their immigration status.
Charity workers claimgovernment policies are exacerbating the plight of men such as the Singhs. “We’re funded by the government to try to solve this issue, which is really being hampered by what the Home Office is doing,” said James Tullett, the chief executive of Ramfel, an Ilford-based charity that supports vulnerable migrants.
“We will try to lodge some applications to secure long-term residency for some. The likelihood is that they won’t meet Home Office rules but we think there is a reasonable chance of winning on appeal. By that stage, however, too much time will have passed for people who desperately need help.
“There really also has been a hostile environment and so much has changed since I first started working in this field. We also have cases, for example, of an Indian man who has cancer but where one of the reasons given for not doing an operation was that he had nowhere to recover.”
For Tullett, the answer lies in the sort of taskforce that acted speedily to address the cases of those caught up in the Windrush scandal.
The Indian high commission said it had a range of initiatives designed to help Indians in distress overseas, and it would contact Redbridge council to help expedite cases of citizens who needed help.
A memorandum of understanding with the UK committing India to a 70-day deadline to verify and confirm the identity of individuals alleged by Britain to be illegal migrants was due to have been signed during a visit by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to the UK in April. The high commission said this was yet to be signed.
The leader of Redbridge council, Jas Athwal, said: “This is a crisis made in Whitehall. A decade of austerity and inaction on affordable housing has left too many vulnerable people facing homelessness. Through its policy on no recourse to public funds, the government is legally tying our hands.
“We are taking action where we can, but the government won’t allow us to provide the proper help those with NRPF [no recourse to public funds] need. We are wholeheartedly committed to ending street homelessness in Redbridge, in particular in Ilford, but we need ministers to start backing us.”
A government spokesperson said: “Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many and we take this matter extremely seriously. Under our rough sleeping initiative, Redbridge has been allocated £1m over the next two years to ensure vulnerable people are supported into services and accommodation. This forms part of our plan, backed by £100m in funding, to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end it by 2027.”
On the High Road in Redbridge, sleeping bags can be found piled under a bridge less than 30 metres from council offices. A few yards along the same street, homeless people sleep for safety near the police station – and in some cases during winter months inside its reception area.
Arguments are known to break out between groups but a spirit of solidarity prevails across a range of nationalities include Indians, Pakistanis, Poles, Russians and others. “We help each other as best as we can. When I first came here Kawal took me under his wing and looked after me,” said Mohammed, 50, a Pakistani man, whose eyes welled up at the memory of his friend.
One recent Home Office initiative still lingers in the memory of some. “They all saw Theresa May’s ‘go home or face arrest’ vans when they were driving around,” Butt said. “But even if they could go home, a lot of them just didn’t understand the message because they couldn’t speak English.”