Welcoming Afghan Refugees; Housing Southend’s Homeless
One of the luxuries of being retired is I am no longer obliged to attend most meetings, but in the last two days I attended two (one online; one face to face), and in each case I am glad that I did. I did so as part of my involvement with Southend Homeless Action Network (SHAN) and Street Spirit, wanting to know more and help.
A couple of months ago, few will have foreseen the rapid turn of events in Afghanistan. Much as I would like to reflect on what has happened and what the media does not report, this will have to be for another time. What I want to concentrate on firstly is the British (Southend) response to re-settle Afghanis and their families. A few days ago, someone in the soup kitchen (Street Spirit) I’m involved in declared she would like us to help the families being temporarily accommodated in Southend. I decided, I need to find out more.
My first (Teams) meeting was under the auspices of Southend Interfaith Working Group (SIWG), which involves our local council and faith group leaders exploring ways they can better work together. The main item on the agenda for our latest meeting was what we are doing, can and should do to help newly arrived Afghan refugees. Southend Echo reminded us a week previously “Park Inn Palace hotel home to 90 Afghanistan refugees”. The Southend Council officers who are dealing with the resettlement program gave a helpful, positive report on where we are currently at with the resettlement program. One piece of pertinent news was that people from all sectors of the community were providing material help and there was more than enough to deal with present needs, begging the question of what to do with the surplus. It showed two things to me: firstly, people want to help; secondly, they need guiding how. There followed helpful discussion as to what members of various faith communities could do to help, what were the unmet needs, the need for coordinated effort, how we could re-settle the new arrivals into permanent accommodation, and how to encourage private sector landlords to take in Afghan refugees. One further thought that occurred as I listened from what people had to say, was that the newly arrived Afghanis were Muslim, ranging from liberal to conservative and need for cultural and relgious sensitivity – and I concur. However, what about the growing under-reported band of Christians, attracting the wrath of the Taliban?
All of which leads nicely to my second (face to face) meeting, involving a small number of activists from the voluntary and community sector (VCS) and representatives from the Southend Borough Council (SBC). We met at Thorpe Hall School, who were superb hosts, and it was part of their engaging with the local community. The overall theme of the meeting was how Southend’s VCS and SBC could together deliver on key actions to help the homeless. We began by setting the scene as to where we thought we were as a town regarding homelessness, especially given that during the 18 month Covid-19 lockdown period, extra measures had been taken to house the homeless, and there has been a credible response by both SBC and the VCS when it came to meeting need. We moved on with questions and concerns and how to answer and address these. While recognising a lot of good has been achieved, there was a general realisation there was a long way to go still, and ideas were shared as to how we can improve matters in a spirit of partnership. What has long been evident to me, besides all sorts of ways we might empower and improve the lives of the homeless, is there is an acute shortage of suitable accommodation, and the fact we also needed to house some Afghan refugees, only accentuates the problem.
I should add, my own view is that it ought not be a matter of either we help the British born homeless, with their plethora of needs or the newly arrived Afghan refugees, no doubt traumatized by recent events, all needing homes. I do believe immigration is an issue and needs to be controlled, there is a lot happening that we do not know or are aware of and the Afghan “crisis” is the result of gross political negligence and ineptitude. In a similar vein, the current housing “crisis” demands a political solution, locally and nationally, while each one of us can respond in some way to the needs that are presented to us and do our bit. If we are a compassionate society, we should aim to help both groups. It was not my intention to end on a downer, but reality has to be faced. Even so, I have seen so much good in action that I am hopeful. It seems to me with so much good will in the town, evidenced by the sometimes splendid, albeit unchannelled, help being offered to Afghan refugees by so many people of good will, from many sectors of society, there is both the opportunity and the need for the wider, disparate, diverse Southend community to respond unitedly, intelligently and appropriately.