Dying on our doorstep: Indian men stuck sleeping rough in Ilford town centre
- Credit: Archant
Ten people have died homeless since October last year – six of them from India, stranded on the streets of Ilford.
“I’ve spent half my life in India and the other half in the UK – but they don’t want me in India or in the UK.”
That was what Sodhi Singh told the Recorder last month when asked what he would like for his future, having slept rough in Ilford for more than a decade.
Half-jokingly, he added: “If they could send me somewhere else, that would be good.”
Sodhi Singh died on Saturday (November 3) in King George Hospital, Goodmayes.
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He was taken to hospital after being found collapsed near Lynton House, in High Road.
The father-of-one had been sleeping rough in Ilford since 2006 – unable to work legally, claim state benefits or return to India.
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He came to the UK in 1995 and claimed political asylum.
In 2006, he lost his cash-in-hand job in motorway construction, became destitute and developed a severe alcohol addiction.
Sodhi’s story bears remarkable similarities to those of numerous other rough sleepers in Ilford whose country of origin is India.
Charities warn that without urgent government action, others will soon share the same fate.
After more than a year of trying, Tahir Butt finally managed to arrange a meeting with the Home Office for his friend Kawal – but it was too late.
Father-of-two Kawal Singh, 61, was found dead on the steps of Redbridge Council’s Lynton House building, in High Road, on August 27 this year.
“It was a shock,” Tahir said, sombrely.
“In a way I managed to fail him – I didn’t manage to solve his issues in a year and a half.
“That was quite difficult.”
Kawal slept rough in Ilford for the past nine years after he sustained an injury which meant he could no longer continue doing cash-in-hand construction work, Tahir explained.
Despite his wishes to return to India, he could not.
His Indian citizenship documents were destroyed after he was trafficked into the UK in 1996.
And lacking any formal status in the UK, he could not legally work or claim government support – a situation known as having “no recourse to public funds”.
Tahir, a retired police officer, became friends with Kawal during his time working at Ilford police station.
The 50-year-old would chat to him and many of the other rough sleepers during his lunch breaks while having an ice cream on the benches nearby.
Tahir describes the rough sleeping community around Lynton House car park as akin to a “homeless United Nations”.
“You’ve got British, Indians, Europeans – people from everywhere.”
Being fluent in Punjabi, he has been well-placed to hear the stories of the numerous Indian men who stay there, many of whom speak little or no English.
Both Tahir and charity The Welcome Centre, in St Mary’s Road, tried to support Kawal for more than a year in his efforts to return to India.
In September 2017, The Welcome Centre connected Kawal with a Home Office outreach worker who attempted to locate the documents needed to prove his Indian citizenship.
But, as these documents are kept on paper in the small rural village where Kawal was born, this process was lengthy and difficult.
Tahir, now working as a community engagement officer with charity Serving Humanity, was also trying to help solve Kawal’s immigration problem.
“Initially we went to the immigration service, we went to the council, we went to the police – a whole heap of institutions,” he said.
“As someone who has worked for the state I have been astonished at the failure of the state to find a solution.”
Tahir said he knows about 20 other Indian men in Ilford in a similar situation, some he fears may soon share Kawal’s fate.
When Kawal died, it hit his friend Bhupinder hard.
“It did hurt me,” he said, with Tahir his interpreter.
“But what can you do?”
“He was one of our brothers – we were all homeless together.”
Bhupinder, 59, initially claimed asylum in the UK in 1999, fleeing political turbulence in his home town in the Punjab.
He soon withdrew from the asylum system, hoping to earn a better wage doing cash-in-hand work in the motorway industry.
Like Kawal, he too sustained injury, could no longer continue and became destitute.
Without formal status in the UK, he cannot work legally or receive government support.
Nor could he return to India, after his passport was destroyed.
When his son died in a motorcycle accident last year, he could not go back to attend his funeral.
Last year, the Home Office and Indian High Commission were able to issue him an emergency travel document to enable Bhupinder to return to India through the Voluntary Returns Scheme (VRS).
But his bid to return fell at the final hurdle when he was deemed not “fit to fly,” following health checks in June this year.
He now awaits the results of blood tests to determine if and when he can go back.
Commenting on his situation, Sonia Lynch, of The Welcome Centre, said: “There are spanners in the works that make this process bureaucratic, difficult and long-winded.
“And in the meantime that person is still on the street.”
She added: “If he is seriously ill, we don’t know if they are going to treat him.
“He won’t get assistance or housing – unless Project Malachi is in place.”
She spoke of previous instances where rough sleepers have been denied treatment because they have been unable to pay exorbitant healthcare costs.
“The ultimate fate is with the hands of God, I don’t know how I am going to die,” Bhupinder said.
“It is in the hands of God when my time comes.”
Asked what he wishes for his future, he said: “Either arrest me or put me in jail, give me nationality, give me status and give me a house or send me back to India.
“Whatever you are going to do, do something, because this isn’t a solution.”
Breaking down the data
Of the ten who died homeless in Redbridge since October last year, two were British, two were from other European countries, and six were from India.
Eight of them had “no recourse to public funds” – meaning they could not access government support, such as housing benefit, due to their immigration status.
The average age of those who died was 49.
Sixty-five people are known to sleep rough in Redbridge according to the last snapshot count in figures released in January this year.
Charity Ramfel, in High Road, Ilford, provides a range of support services to vulnerable migrants and has recently won funding to offer rough sleepers immigration advice through the government’s Rough Sleeper Initiative.
Asked what can be done to solve this, chief executive James Tullett said: “A taskforce needs to be set up by the government similar to the one for Windrush to ensure that people’s lives are not left in limbo and cases are processed in a reasonable timeframe.
“There needs to be legal aid funding for people who sleep rough to bring their applications forward.”
He added: “By trying to save money on legal aid funding for rough sleepers we will be spending more in emergency health services.”
He acknowledged that the process for regularising their immigration could take up to two years, navigating through the application process and attending subsequent court hearings.
He added: “The law needs to make way for some sort of temporary leave to remain rather than letting them continue to be destitute whilst knowing that they can’t return.”
Redbridge Together aims to raise money for two projects at the heart of helping the homeless in the borough.
Two thirds of all money raised will go towards the creation of pioneering pop-up hostel Project Malachi and one third to The Welcome Centre day centre for the homeless.
Project Malachi aims to create a temporary hostel for rough sleepers and homeless people using recycled shipping containers on the site of a crumbling former funeral directors in Chadwick Road to rebuild their lives.
Support workers from Ramfel will provide rough sleepers living at Project Malachi with immigration advice.
The Welcome Centre, in St Mary’s Road, offers wide ranging services including counselling and some medical care.
You can support by donating money, raising funds, displaying Redbridge Together promotional material in businesses or offering work placements.
What Redbridge Council said
Cllr Farah Hussain, cabinet member for housing and homelessness, said: “We were deeply saddened to hear of this death.
“Rough sleeping is not inevitable but we can’t deny this is a complex issue and agencies trying to help individuals often face many challenges.
“Our ambition is to end rough sleeping in Redbridge so that we are not faced with another tragedy of this kind.
“We are already working closely with voluntary and charitable organisations and have secured substantial funding, which will mean we can do much more to help some of our most vulnerable residents.
“However, we are limited by the government’s restrictions on foreign nationals that have no recourse to public funds.”
What the Home Office said
A Home Office spokesman said: “There are important safeguards in place to ensure vulnerable migrants who are destitute and have community care needs can receive support.
“We work closely with local authorities to address and resolve cases of those migrants who we have a duty to protect and support.”
He added that those seeking asylum, who would otherwise be destitute, are given free accommodation and a £37.75 cash allowance while their claim is considered.
Migrants whose immigration applications are rejected can also use the “Voluntary Returns Service” (VRS) to return to their countries of origin.
The VRS works with non-government organisations, faith groups and communities to support people to build a life back in their countries of origin.
He added that, on a case-by-case basis, the Home Office will help people wanting to return to their home country obtain a passport or help getting an emergency travel document.
In some instances it will also offer to purchase tickets or carry out complex assisted returns for vulnerable people.
The Indian High Commission has been approached for comment.
Redbridge Together is an association between Ilford Salvation Army, The Welcome Centre, Ilford BID, the Ilford Recorder and Redbridge Council.
To get involved email: email@example.com
Donate £3 by texting LIFE to 70145 or at Crowdfunder.co.uk/RedbridgeTogether