THE heartbreaking experiences of homeless children like nine-year-old Joel have become familiar to staff at Project 17.
He told the charity – which works with destitute migrant families living in extreme poverty – that he had been spending nights in an A&E waiting room, sleeping in his school uniform.
“I felt sorry for my mum because she had to stay up and my head had to be on her lap,” he said, “She had to stay awake, her eyes were open like 24/ 7, all night and all day so she could watch over me. It was hard for her but also hard for me.”
Among the hundreds of homeless families Project 17 has worked with, children have been sleeping on night buses, in A&E waiting rooms and in a church.
Their parents may be undocumented but in the process of formalising their immigration status, or they may have leave to remain and a right to work, but a restriction on their visa preventing them from accessing public funds.
Many local councils wrongly deny support to parents who have no access to welfare benefits because of their immigration status, leaving children unsupported and at risk of homelessness, exploitation or abuse.
Project 17 remind local authorities that under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 they are obliged to provide support to families with children ‘in need’, even if the conditions of their immigration status mean they have ‘no recourse to public funds’. Where possible, the team offers advice and advocacy.
“It is disturbing that in a country as rich as the UK, children are being left street homeless, and without enough money to eat or go to school,” Amy Murtagh, interim director of Project 17, said.
“Urgent action needs to be taken to ensure children living in families with no recourse to public funds are treated fairly and given the support they need to live.”
To this end, the Hackney-based Project 17 is working to effect systemic change through policy work which has included the publication of Not Seen, Not Heard, one of the first reports of its kind, offering an insight into the often invisible world of undocumented migrant families through the first-hand accounts of children.
The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust-funded report details the story of a mother and her three young children who started sleeping on night buses when they became homeless due to her losing her right to work. In another instance, a woman and her autistic son were repeatedly refused section 17 support and slept in a church for six weeks until the Home Office granted them access to public funds and they were able to access housing support.
In addition, Project 17 has made a short animated film (pictured in stills above and below) inspired by Joel’s story, as part of their campaign to make sure all children have a right to a home and enough to eat, regardless of their parents’ immigration status.
As well as raising the profile of the problems these families face, Project 17 works to address longer term issues through engaging in strategic litigation and working with local authorities, decision makers and politicians.
They argue that imposing the condition of 'no recourse to public funds' on someone due to their immigration status is creating a hostile environment which leaves people with nowhere to turn.
“The immigration status of their parents should not be held against these children, who are some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people in the UK,” Amy said.
“All children have the right to a home and enough to eat, regardless of their parents’ immigration status, and these rights must be upheld.”
- The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust makes a grant to Project 17 in support of its policy work. The grant is made as part of JRCT’s Rights and Justice programme.
- Read more about Project 17 here.