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How cuts threaten the “last resort” charity counselling London’s refugees and asylum seekers

Each week, Waterloo Community Counselling helps over 270 people in up to 27 languages – from Cantonese to Kurdish Sorani. One of the last services of its kind, it, too, is now threatened with closure. 

When Cassandra* called Waterloo Community Counselling, she was lying on the street in London, unable to move. Cassandra was originally from Uganda. As a child, she was physically and sexually abused. Then, as a young woman, she was brought to the UK by human traffickers.

She lived for years in hiding, without legal status, and by the time she eventually reached out to Waterloo Community Counselling, she had nowhere else to go. Traumatised by her life experiences and without any legal or medical support, she felt unable to go to the supermarket or even leave her home. She was suffering from depression and trauma. Cassandra’s story is typical of the clients seen by Priya Commander at Waterloo Community Counselling (WCC).

Located in the middle of a 1960s brutalist ex-council estate, the building rented by the charity used to be a community dentist, with eight rooms for sessions to take place in. As I chat with Commander, her guide dog rolls around on the rug at her feet.

With its offices sitting on the boundary between Lambeth and Southwark, WCC provides subsidised counselling to residents of both boroughs. It also runs the Multi-Ethnic Counselling Service (MECS) and fundraises for treatment for asylum seekers and refugees across Greater London. The counsellors at MECS speak several languages, and with translators on hand, the charity can provide a service in 27 languages, from Cantonese to Kurdish Sorani. Since it is one of the few community counselling services of its kind in London, demand is high. GPs across the city refer patients with limited English. Every week, the charity sees over 270 people.

“We are working with people whose lives are so troubled”, says Commander, a psychotherapist and a project manager of WCC. “They've been through so much trauma before they have even arrived in the UK. And then they get here and it isn't what they had been led to believe because the process of seeking asylum is complex and protracted.” Without the right to remain, many of Commander’s clients have almost no access to money. In the UK, asylum seekers are entitled to just £5.39 a day in welfare. The majority are also isolated from family and friends, many are homeless. The service the counsellors provide is often the only lifeline available to some.

“A lot of the clients that we see in our Multi-Ethnic Counselling service, especially our asylum seeking, refugee clients, are suffering from the results of trauma, so they don't sleep, they have flashbacks. They may well have eating disorders. They self-harm. There's a lot of neglect in terms of you looking after themselves and eating properly. This is also much more challenging [to deal with] if you haven't got any stable living accommodation,” Commander says. “We are working with people who are at the bottom end of the scale in terms of what’s out there for them. They have nowhere else to go.”

But fairly soon, this last-resort charity may no longer exist. In April, WCC’s funding from Lambeth council was cut by two-thirds, and it has failed to win major independent trust funding. As a result, the organisation was forced to close its waiting list for referrals, turning away hundreds of people, many of whom had been waiting for months. Commander also expressed concern that Lambeth council recently proposed the doubling of WCC’s rent. “All the local authorities have been cut, and they're trying to raise funds. I don’t know whether they want to get rid of us. But they will get rid of us if they double the rent, because we won't be able to afford to continue,” she adds.

Lambeth council has confirmed that it is negotiating a new rent with WCC but say it is “currently working with [the charity] to agree a level of rent that means they can meet their legal obligations as tenants while continuing their good work.”

And yet, Waterloo Community Counselling is not the only mental health charity that has been affected by government cuts. In March, the renowned Women’s Therapy Centre in Holloway was forced to close. The heavily subsidised counselling service had run for 42 years, helping victims of domestic abuse and rape.

Christine Smith, the former chair of the Women’s Therapy Centre, says the situation is “depressing”. “It is a growing trend that organisations that provide psychotherapy are facing funding challenges. The government, although putting a forward facing picture of wanting to do preventative mental health work, is not actually taking any steps to assist,” she says. “Funding had a part to play in our demise. We were lucky to have some very supportive charities, but once our reserves had reduced, and staffing costs had been cut to a minimum over a number of years we had to make the very difficult decision to close the charity permanently.”

Like most charities, the Waterloo Community Counselling relies on trusts like The Henry Smith Charity and City Bridge Trust to provide the necessary grants to supplement a lack of public funding. But as government spending continues to dry up, a growing number of charities are being forced to compete for a depleting pot of independent grant money. Mental health services are some of the first to go.

“Mental health requires a lot of investment and it's not short work,” Commander explains. “And that's the problem. It's expensive. Plus, the mental health provision nowadays is all for short term intervention. It's not about sustaining people for the longer term. It takes time to recover when you have had to flee your homeland or all your family being slaughtered. This is not something you're going to get over that quickly or easily. Sometimes this is just impossible.” Recovery is difficult to measure, and when the competition is high, trusts are less willing to take a risk on long-term, unquantifiable results.

As more mental health charities close, knock-on stress will be seen across the sector and inside doctors surgeries. Larger charities will be forced to bear the cost; a cost which they can barely afford. Freedom from Torture, one of the more established charities in the non-profit counselling sector, has reported an increase in demand for their counselling services as smaller charities close.

Despite headlines about mental health, long-term solutions are left floating. As public service funds continue to disappear, people like Cassandra will be left to struggle on, without the vital mental health support they need to simply leave the house. “The point is”, says Commander, “we are the last resort”.

*Cassandra is a pseudonym to protect her privacy.

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor.