A year on from the Russian invasion, Manasa Narayanan reports on the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme and the challenges still being faced by hosts and refugees alike
Sign up for our weekly Behind the Headlines email and get a free copy of Byline Times posted to you
“You can’t stay with us. If you don’t want to leave our house, we will just call council services and they will take you to some hotel.” By the end of her six-month sponsorship, this is what Kateryna (not her real name) was hearing from her hosts.
Unable to find new sponsors or buy more time to secure rental housing, she and her son found themselves without a home. If not for the generosity of friends and local community support, they would have had to move to a council assigned temporary stop – far away from the life they had built so far. If not, worse, they could have ended up in the streets unable to survive purely on their universal credit allowance.
Last March, as the full Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun, Kateryna and her son made their way to the UK as part of the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme.
The scheme was unveiled by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson who boasted in the House of Commons that “it was unlike” any support being offered elsewhere. The Government asked ordinary Brits to open their homes to those fleeing the war.
But 11 months after the scheme was launched, many Ukrainian refugees continue to struggle with housing.
Three months after Kateryna’s move, Daniela (not her real name) and her son also journeyed to the UK on the same scheme. While Daniela was fortunate to have found an understanding and supportive host family, Kateryna was less lucky.
Within a year of coming to the UK, Kateryna and her son have had to change houses four times. After her hosts turned her away, she sought help from Haringey Council. But it wasn’t very helpful, she said. They offered her a room in a hotel, quite far from where she now resides. “But my child goes to school here,” she said.
“He keeps saying ‘mom I want to go home’,” Kateryna added.
According to the latest data from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, between February 2022 and January 2023, 4295 Ukrainian households faced homelessness or were at the risk of being homeless – around 60% of those are in the UK on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
Crisis UK has also reported that, since June 2022, there has been a six-fold rise in the number of Ukrainians who have received homelessness assistance, with most of this increase concentrated in the past few months.
“We have a growing backlog of around 2,500 cases in Ukraine and neighbouring countries,” Robina Qureshi, who heads Positive Action in Housing – a non-profit seeking to help Ukrainians without a host and home – told Byline Times.
“There is a definite rise in the number of homeless people and especially people enduring inappropriate behaviour from sponsors as time goes on,” she said. “The placements are not being managed. There is no regulation. People are finding it hard to move on and the cost of living crisis and general recession is making things much harder for hosts as well as Ukrainians.”
An investigation by Byline Times showed that, in England and Wales, more than 300 councils had been contacted about a breakdown of host-refugee relationships. And as of October 2022, one in 10 sponsorships ended early in at least a quarter of the councils.
The case of Anastasia (not her real name) is one among those. Having been mistreated by her hosts, she was left with no option but to contact Positive Action in Housing. Her hosts would not let her use any shared spaces in the house and did not provide her with heating. They also refused to communicate with her and this put her in an extremely vulnerable position. The NGO said that the lack of any screening process by the Government was responsible for such a situation.
While some who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances get absorbed in a new host arrangement, there is now a real shortage of sponsors. This has resulted in councils having to place refugees in hotels. If not that, refugees are trying their luck at rentals. But with rents skyrocketing, especially in London, sustaining themselves purely on benefits like universal credit will prove difficult.
‘How Would We Have Credit History?’
While trouble finding hosts is one side of the story, stuck in temporary homes and fixes, many Ukrainians are finding it difficult to move on and build more independent lives. Even hosts who want to help are struggling.
“The way it was described by the Government, as this is a sort of minimum commitment of six months, a lot of hosts – not us – thought they’ll do six months and then see,” Daniela’s host, a public health doctor, told Byline Times.
“But hosts have had genuine issues like children who didn’t live at home have come back home, cost of living issues where they could no longer afford to support Ukrainians. Because there’s a small monthly payment, that to be honest, doesn’t really cover the costs.”
As sponsorships have become difficult to sustain in the long-term, refugees are trying to find rentals. Daniela, despite having great hosts, still can’t rely on them forever. But despite having contacted some 30 agencies so far, she and Kateryna have found it tough to secure a flat.
“Landlords ask for very good work, and good credit history – but how would we have credit history?” Kateryna said, against a backdrop of landlords not wanting to rent out flats to refugees in general.
While refugees try to navigate a tiresome rental market, hosts face their own dilemmas.
“Hosts who want to help send their guests on a successful independent journey feel terrible about the thought of homelessness and the overwhelming costs of everything,” said Daniela’s host.
“So quite a lot of hosts have been hanging on to their guests, even though they may not have been able to afford it. Because they would have felt personally guilty if they’d let their guests go.”
Don’t Miss a Story
‘Hosts Shoulder All‘
As hosts and councils trying to support refugees continue to feel the heat, the Government seems to have largely washed its hands off any responsibility.
When the scheme was announced, many civil society organisations warned that it would be a “failing scheme”. Qureshi, of Positive Action in Housing, said the UK Government “shamefully put Ukrainian war refugees in the direct line of fire when they told UK hosts and Ukrainians to find each other on social media”.
Daniela’s host believes that the Government is now treating this as “yesterday’s issue” and that this is “not a Government scheme”.
“It’s a scheme where hosts shoulder all the continuing responsibilities, which was not what hosts originally took on,” she said. “It feels to me like a lot of Government schemes – a bit of good publicity initially, a little bit of money thrown at it, and then it’s forgotten.”
Having dealt with the council for several months now, she believes that while more needs to be done by local authorities, they are resource-strapped because “even though money has been allocated, there are all kinds of bells and whistles with which the allocation comes”.
“We need resources to help refugees navigate their housing options in the private and social rented sectors,” Qureshi added. “Nothing short of a concerted house building programme will resolve the current crisis with accommodation.”
While the Government has provided some additional funding, it continues to ignore the shortcomings of its policy and has not established any meaningful long-term plan of support. It seems a fair assessment to make that it has been entirely to the credit of hosts, councils and community groups that the Homes for Ukraine scheme has managed to support the refugees it has.
With no clarity from the Government about their plans, refugees like Daniela and Kateryna don’t know how to go about their lives. What happens to them after their three-year visas end? They don’t know what to tell their children.
Haringey Council told Byline Times that “we always endeavour to ensure all our guests are given support and placed in a safe environment” and “we’re operating in a challenging housing market, which sadly means we cannot always find accommodation for people in their preferred area”.
A Government spokesperson said that, since the Russian invasion, the UK has welcomed more than 162,000 Ukrainians – “demonstrating the extraordinary generosity of the British public”.
“We are incredibly grateful to those who have opened their homes, which is why we have extended and increased ‘thank you’ payments to cover additional costs,” they added. “We have also ensured all new arrivals can work and access benefits from day one. Councils have a duty to ensure no families are left without a roof over their heads and we are giving them more resource to address these challenges, as well as £150 million to support guests into their own homes and £500 million to find housing.”
OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU
Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.