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14 March 2023

Hosting a refugee has shown me how Homes for Ukraine broke its promise

I’ve loved showing my guest London, but she has no hope of finding her own home or job here. No wonder she’s moving to Poland.

By Harriet Marsden

The other day, the Ukrainian girl who lives with me said she planned to move to Poland when our 12-month hosting agreement was up. She could rent somewhere there, she explained, which she couldn’t afford to do here. She could pay bills, find a job. “The UK we imagine in Ukraine is like the UK ten years ago, I think,” she said. “It’s not possible for us here now.”

I think about the struggle we went through finding her an emergency dentist appointment. About her hospital referral that the GP assured us was urgent, only for her to be given a date months away. The incessant transport strikes we navigate getting around the city together. The insufferable pointlessness of her Jobcentre appointments. The chaos, bureaucracy, lack of support, exemplified by the empty welcome desk when she arrived at Gatwick. The almost laughable impossibility of her finding anywhere to live in London, as a refugee on benefits with no fixed income, deposit, guarantor or rental history.

This is a savage indictment of the state of things, yes. But also an insight into just how fundamentally the Homes for Ukraine scheme, announced by Boris Johnson a year ago today (14 March), has broken its promise. As someone who signed up to it on day one I can say that the scheme, however noble its intentions, has failed.

[See also: Can Ukraine win the war?]

I originally committed to hosting a Ukrainian refugee for six months. When that deadline approached it became obvious that it wasn’t going to be nearly long enough for my guest to be comfortable finding a more permanent home. It had, after all, taken the best part of three months – three months of online portal applications, in-person appointments, postal delays, unanswered phone calls, inconsistent information and general fobbings-off – for her to start receiving benefits.

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When the council called me to ask whether I was able to extend past six months, the pressure to extend the arrangement was intense. Having failed to offer the necessary support, they threw around terms like “voluntary homelessness” and “breakdown of trust”. I felt awful. The implication was: are you really unable to cope? We have resources to help (although we didn’t before). Aren’t you close with your guest? She says you are. Perhaps just until after Christmas? Another host described it as emotional blackmail.

You won’t read this in the papers, but the government has also effectively closed the scheme. Just before Christmas, an official statement announced that the monthly “thank you” payments would increase from £350 to £500 after 12 months for “long-term hosts”. Most took that to mean for hosts who continued beyond 12 months. But the government quickly clarified that this increased payment would apply to any household hosting a long-term guest – as in a Ukrainian already here for 12 months.

This has incentivised hosts not to accept a new refugee. Why would you, when you could receive almost twice as much money for hosting someone who’s already been here a year? Who already has their residency permit and national insurance number sorted? Already been set up on the labyrinthine benefits system? Who already has a phone number, English skills, possibly a job and probably a support network? Why would any host now take on someone still trying to flee Ukraine, especially after already effectively functioning as an unpaid case-worker and counsellor for their first guest?

[See also: Is Ukraine prepared for the coming offensive?]

Local authorities have also managed to create tension between hosts. Different councils have offered different winter payments with no consistency, and some neighbouring boroughs offer differing levels of financial support. Many hosts, particularly in London where the cost of living is higher, feel increasingly hard done by, which has eroded the bonds of solidarity and mutual support with other hosts that have kept the scheme going.

And if that isn’t enough, the Refugee Council recently announced that it would be ending its involvement with the scheme, leaving local authorities to fend for themselves. The charity initially stepped in when it became clear – months into the scheme – that councils such as mine were completely unable to provide the kind of individual support that incoming, often traumatised refugees and out-of-depth hosts needed. It wasn’t fair, or even feasible, to effectively outsource this kind of specialised casework to the general public, without training or salary. Not one host I’ve spoken to believes the scheme can function even in its current state much longer.

Considering that my council contacted me to arrange a home visit for vetting and security a good three months after my guest had moved in, I don’t have the greatest confidence in its abilities. It can’t even spell my guest’s name correctly.

Meanwhile, my guest tells me that Ukrainian TikTok is filled with scared, indignant or distraught young women on the scheme. Some describe being lured here under false pretences, offered a vision of sunlit uplands and government support that disappeared the moment their planes touched down. Others have been turfed out, with nowhere to go and few employment or rental opportunities. These women are absolutely ripe for exploitation, which the scheme doesn’t do enough to prevent.

On any given day you can see photos of young Ukrainian girls posting their photos and bios in the hope of finding a new sponsor, only to be met with lewd remarks and sleazy offers. And if that’s what men are posting publicly, imagine what’s going on in private.

There are other groups, too, just for hosts, that are regularly filled with frustration, disappointment and, above all, stress. Stress over how guests will support themselves, knowing we cannot continue hosting forever. Stress at where they’re going to go. What they can realistically rent. How we can help. Whether it’s legal to act as guarantors, to put up rental deposits, to provide childcare. Whether they’ll be safe if they go back home.

[See also: The West’s narrative on Ukraine hasn’t convinced the rest of the world]

The bitter irony is that a scheme designed to harness public support for Ukraine and British goodheartedness may, in some cases, end up increasing anti-refugee sentiment. Bad stories always travel faster than good.

And the fact is, there are good stories. Many hosts, myself included, have formed strong bonds with their guests and will care about them long after they have gone. I have loved introducing mine to my hometown, seeing London through new eyes as we visit museums, exhibitions, musicals and monuments together. We have shared food, stories, jokes, learnt each other’s culture in a way you only can living cheek to cheek. Ukrainians are generally far more direct than the English, it turns out, and have an exceptional dry wit. Borscht is divine. I am a better journalist and citizen, I think, for knowing the ins and outs of the benefits scheme and the way this country is set up – or not – for refugees.

The scheme has also humanised the unthinkable: the scale of devastation and heartbreak wrought by Russia’s invasion is easier to grasp through one person’s story. Every time I find myself thinking of my guest as just like me – we are two young, self-employed women sharing a flat, working from home together, padding about in pyjamas and sharing a box of doughnuts – it hits even harder that she doesn’t know how long her own flat will still be standing. She talks about air raids and bomb shelters so matter-of-factly, things I only know about from history class. She shares videos of violence and terror in a war zone. She spends Christmas without her friends and family.

I have been lucky. I get on well with my guest, and she is a model flatmate. If even I am actively warning people about the perils of the scheme, then what does that say? And more importantly, why has the government still said nothing?

[See also: Andrew Marr: “The war in Ukraine will go on for years – and so will its consequences for Britain”]

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