After fleeing war, homelessness threatens UK’s Ukrainian refugees

After being sponsored for an initial six-month period, finding permanent housing is challenging as inflation soars.

Ukraine refugees in England
Ukraine refugees react as the national anthem is played during a celebration for the Ukraine Independence day in Chichester, south England on August 27, 2022. Chichester has been named as the most generous area in the country for housing Ukrainian refugees [File: Frank Augstein/AP Photo]

London, United Kingdom – When the Russian war on Ukraine began last February, like many others, 18-year-old Anna Merchuk and her mother had no choice but to leave their home.

They fled their western city of Styri and arrived in Poland weeks later.

The Merchuks were preparing to go to Canada. But after a chance meeting with a British volunteer who was helping Ukrainian refugees obtain UK visas, they changed course and a few weeks later, drove to England with their new sponsor, Derek Edwards.

The United Kingdom is one of Ukraine’s strongest allies, and under the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, Anna and her mother settled in his house in Milton Keynes, about 80km (51 miles) northwest of London.

Together with Edwards, who is an entrepreneur, Anna co-founded a charity, Nadiya, which means hope in Ukrainian.

“We were discussing how to collect all the information about the British housing schemes [for Ukrainian refugees] in one place, because it was confusing, especially for people who don’t speak English,” Anna told Al Jazeera.

Anna Merchuk
Anna Merchuk, 18, co-founded a charity in Milton Keynes to help Ukrainian refugees find housing in England [Courtesy of Anna Merchuk]

“So we decided to found this charity which focuses on getting visas for Ukrainian refugees and helping them come to England.”

Fluent in English, Anna’s responsibility as a translator involved answering questions from refugees and sponsors alike, and matching them up.

And while Nadiya is working on an app to gather data and connect refugees with host families automatically, Anna enjoys the manual effort as it creates a bond between the two sides.

“It gives me so much satisfaction when I see a Ukrainian family arrive in England, find a job, find schools for their children, sign up for English courses and assimilate to British society,” the aspiring politician said.

Anna estimates that Nadiya has helped about 500 refugees so far, but the focus is now on finding more permanent housing solutions after the sponsorship period – which typically lasts for six months – ends.

Homelessness amid high cost of living

According to the United Nations, more than six million people have fled Ukraine, in the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. A further six million are internally displaced.

Like other European countries which introduced measures to welcome Ukrainian refugees, the British government rolled out three visa-based programmes: Homes for Ukraine, Family Scheme, and Extension Scheme.

The schemes allow refugees to stay in the country for up to three years and have access to schools, healthcare, social welfare benefits, and the right to work.

“Homes for Ukraine has seen 112,000 Ukrainians welcomed to the UK, thanks to the generosity of sponsors,” a British government spokesperson told Al Jazeera. “All Ukrainian arrivals can work or study and access benefits from day one and we have increased ‘thank you’ payments for sponsors to 500 pounds [$600] a month once a guest has been here for a year.”

A demonstrator holds a placard saying 'Refugees always welcome' during an anti-war march, in London
A demonstrator holds a placard saying ‘Refugees always welcome’ during an anti-war march, in London, on March 6, 2022 [File: Alberto Pezzali/AP Photo]

But while praised for their achievements in welcoming refugees fleeing Russia’s war in Ukraine, a worrying trend is now emerging, a year after the invasion began: an increase in homelessness.

The UK’s cost-of-living crisis, coupled with the lack of affordable housing, has gravely affected the ability of refugees to move on from sponsorship into their own homes.

This has been compounded by a lack of credit history in the country, not speaking English fluently, and difficulties in finding a job.

“The design and implementation of funding available has left some refugees outside of the scope of support – putting living arrangements in jeopardy and leaving them at risk of homelessness,” the national charity for the homeless, Crisis, said.

According to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, 4,295 Ukrainian households have received homelessness support from local councils since arriving in the country – a sixfold increase since June 2022. The number is thought to be much higher as only 72 percent of local English authorities were surveyed.

Initially, there was an enthusiastic response from British hosts at the beginning of the war to open up their homes to Ukrainian refugees, with at least 200,000 households signing up in the first few weeks of the government announcing the schemes.

However, despite more than 140,000 people being hosted by British families under the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, many hosts are now reluctant to extend six-month stays as inflation soars.

“We’ve provided councils with extensive funding including an additional 150 million pounds [$180m] to support Ukrainian guests to move into their own homes, as well as 500 million pounds [$600m] to acquire housing for those fleeing conflict,” the government spokesperson said.

But gaps in supporting Ukrainian refugees prompted a cross-party coalition of more than 70 MPs to sign an open letter last Monday calling on the British government to act immediately.

“In a survey with Ukrainian refugees, the Work Rights Centre found that they face acute risks of homelessness and poverty, with 1 in 10 being threatened with eviction at some point in their stay in the UK,” the letter by the All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) said, adding that two-thirds have little confidence in finding private rented accommodation due to high rents, deposits and other barriers.

Furthermore, the refugees who arrived under the Family Scheme are twice as likely than their counterparts in other schemes to become homeless, due to lack of financial help, lack of space in homes, and lack of transference if a placement breaks down.

Charities such as Settled, which has helped 402 Ukrainian households to date, have urged the government to implement the APPG recommendations.

“​​We also ask for better harmonisation between the schemes: including new payments for Family Scheme hosts, and ability to ‘re-match’ from the Family scheme to Homes For Ukraine scheme,” said Settled’s CEO Kate Smart in a statement.

Another social enterprise, Beam, uses online crowd-funders to assist people experiencing homelessness to start anew.

“We’ve supported about 30 Ukrainian families so far, and nearly all of these have been single-parent households – single mothers specifically,” Beam’s chief Seb Barker told Al Jazeera.

The process starts with different government partners and councils referring at-risk people to Beam, which assigns a team of caseworkers to offer the required support.

A fundraising page is then launched on Beam’s website.

“We’re seeing a trend across all the different council partners we work with, of more Ukrainians becoming homeless – either because the relationship with the host broke down, or that came to an end anyway and they didn’t have anywhere else to move onto,” Barker said.

“So councils offer a really vital way to support people to really settle long-term in the UK; to find that job as often people are really work ready, in our experience. And then we can help them find their own home to rent after that.”

For Anna, who had to quit school to focus on Nadiya but still hopes to study social sciences at Cambridge University, the aim is to house 100 families by the end of June.

“We decided to act as a guarantor for Ukrainian families in order to pay a deposit and three months of rent upfront,” she said.

In the future, Anna hopes that Nadiya will be able to offer its services to refugees and asylum seekers from other nations.

Recently, the charity signed a partnership with United 24, a global fundraising initiative launched by Ukrainian authorities in May, and has as of December, managed to raise more than $237m from 110 countries.

“Hopefully we will be involved in humanitarian aid more,” Anna said.

“I feel that this is helping me as much as it is helping the families,” she went on to say. “Because when you’re in another country outside your own, and you’re not doing anything to help, it’s like feeling each tear from the inside. And it makes me feel much, much better that I’m contributing and helping.”

Source: Al Jazeera