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Open Doors: Countering the hostile environment

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ASSIST volunteer and client chatting in the Peace Gardens. Credit: Chelsea Pike.

"With the bus pass [that ASSIST provides], you can stay on the bus all day. You can relax for a few hours on the bus and keep warm. This is important. The new buses with chargers are very good."

The people ASSIST supports are destitute, without the right to work, housing or state welfare support. That means finding ways to survive, like spending all day on the bus. One of the ways ASSIST helps is by providing a safe place to sleep, including by organising hosting placements. Right now there are about 40 households across the city opening their doors and welcoming asylum seekers into their homes.

Steph and Jeremy are two such hosts. For them it was a simple choice: "We had the space. It was appealing because it felt like something very practical and hands-on. It's easy to give £10 a month, but you kind of forget about it and don't know where it goes. This felt like a contribution that you could make - a big contribution to one person."

ASSIST volunteers host guests on weekends when our night shelter is closed or for a few months whilst clients are waiting for a space in an ASSIST house.

Hosting placements sometimes bring difficulties. They involve all the power imbalances of living in someone else's house, with the added baggage of living with someone who lives securely in this country when you don't, who may well have access to food, work and family life, without thinking, when you don't. Perhaps you don't speak the same language comfortably. Perhaps the host lives in a part of town you don't know.

Hosts want to show people a warm welcome

It can also be pretty hard for volunteers to see first-hand the impact of our government's immigration system (although nowhere near as hard as for the people themselves, of course). As Steph says, "Not everyone gets granted leave to remain and that's quite difficult to manage when you've become friends with somebody. That's the reality of the system."

Despite all of this, hosting can work really well. Even if guests and hosts don't have much in common, providing a safe place to sleep is the most important thing. It gives people the security to be able to focus on planning their next steps, which often means making a fresh claim for asylum. Knowing they have somewhere comfortable to stay each night is one less thing to worry about.

And there are some amazing stories of friendship. Majdi*, a client who was hosted for a couple of months by a family in Pitsmoor, said: "Alex and Jim* are like my family, like my family home. I was happy and comfortable there. Even though I am now living in an ASSIST house, I sometimes still miss them."

Anthony, a guest who stayed with a couple in Walkley, said it was hard at first, but in comparison to the night shelter "there was so much more freedom". A week in, Anthony and his hosts discovered they had another common language and this led to a much closer friendship. "We'd talk about my family. Only downside was, they didn't have a TV. I follow football and every time I wanted to watch a match I had to go into town!"

I've had the pleasure of meeting a lot of ASSIST hosts. I've lost count of the number of people who tell me they volunteer as a direct response to the Home Office's 'hostile environment' policy, which is designed to make life as hard as possible for those without leave to remain in the belief that this will make them leave the country voluntarily. Hosts want to show people a warm welcome, provide an environment of respect and hospitality, and give them some dignity in the face of an inhumane immigration system.

Hannah Brock Womack

With thanks to Paulina Gonzalez Salas Duhne, who interviewed Steph and Jeremy.

*Some names have been changed for this article.

If you're interested in getting involved in hosting for ASSIST, get in touch on Twitter @ASSISTSheffield or by email.

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