Homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic: homeless migrants in a global crisis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Portsmouth
Department Name: Sch of Education and Sociology


People experiencing homelessness are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus. Despite government efforts to place rough sleepers in hotels to contain the spread of the disease, many migrants sleeping rough with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) have been left behind at the height of a global pandemic. This project, involving researchers from University of Portsmouth, University of Sussex and St Mungo's, the homeless charity, will produce an 18-month qualitative-based study of migrant homelessness framed by the wider global and national context. Working with two of St Mungo's migrant services, Street Legal, St Mungo's legal team and Routes Home, a service supporting people sleeping rough from outside of the UK, a particular focus of the study will be the experience of non-UK nationals and their attempts, during the crisis, to resolve their immigration status. Many of these migrants are at the sharpest end of homelessness: almost 1,000 rough sleepers housed in emergency accommodation in London have NRPF (Heath, 2020).

Most migrant homeless clients are faced with multiple everyday challenges; they experience the hostility and aggression directed toward homeless people, compounded with often intense experiences of racism. Migrant homeless clients are also likely to be afraid of 'authorities' for various reasons including fear of deportation by the Home Office and personal histories of violent persecution by state actors in their original countries of belonging. During the pandemic, increased numbers of police on the streets have created high anxiety for refugees/asylum seekers and destitute migrants who report being retriggered with PTSD symptoms, with no access to NHS mental health services that are now delivered primarily remotely and are restricted access except to those patients who have access to free or cheap wifi, or unlimited phone credit (Munt 2020). A cultural miasma of fear and anxiety due to pandemic can affect such vulnerable minority groups particularly forcefully, with public attitudes generating direct aggression toward perceived 'outsiders' as harbingers of disease. Historically, the discourse of the 'stranger' (Ahmed 1991) or foreigner as bringer of disease has been well recognised within cultural sociology (Munt 2007), and as cultural suspicion grows under such conditions, feelings of alienation and estrangement amongst vulnerable groups intensifies.

The project will innovate by examining the biographical and life history narratives of St Mungo's clients in London in relation to their experiences of homelessness during the coronavirus crisis. Alongside semi-structured interviews, we will use participatory research methods including peer research, autoethnographic diaries, mobile phone photo-ethnographies and life history narratives in order to capture the rich and emotive narratives of those experiencing crisis. In doing so, we will examine the intersection of personal histories, complex global processes and the dynamics of the particular situation (Stewart, 2012, 2013). Researching vulnerable groups requires ethical sensitivity. It carries the danger of risking more disappointment among the respondents and exacerbating intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. To avoid this, and to make a positive intervention, we will seek to engage clients with services and support as part of the research project. Based on its findings, and working with St Mungo's partners, the project will make recommendations for measures that can be taken across the UK and elsewhere to support the homeless, particularly those most vulnerable, during times of crisis.


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Sanders C (2020) COVID-19 and the (Extra)ordinariness of Crisis: Lessons from Homeless Migrants in Journal of Cultural Analysis and Social Change