Sheffield , United Kingdom

Accommodate Sheffield – Better Together

Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust (Hact)

June 16, 2009

Linking refugee housing and community mental health support services

Last year Abdikarim and his wife Fawzia were given great news. The Home Office – the UK department responsible for immigration control – wrote to inform them that they and their two young daughters had been given UK refugee status.  In the UK, gaining “refugee status” means they have have indefinite leave to remain in the UK and also the right to work (on their previous status as “asylum seekers Abdikarim and Fawzia were not permitted to have any employment).  The change in legal status means that their access to state benefits and state supported accommodation would end in 28 days.

Eager to seek employment, Abdikarim and Fawzia were also worried by the reality that they now had less than a month in which to both find employment and save a sufficient amount for a private rental.

In Sheffield, like much of England, the demand for social housing is high with 18,000 households bidding annually for around 3,000 council vacancies. High demand for housing all over England in the context of a housing shortage has meant that there is an affordability crisis in the private property market. The average house price in Sheffield is seven times the average household income, and most of the new housing that has been built is city centre flats rather than family homes. The result is that families are being forced into poor quality or unsuitable housing.

This is especially true for refugees since they often have limited knowledge with regards to finding and acquiring cheap and suitable accommodation and limited savings to put towards upfront costs and fees such as the deposit.

Still recovering from the stress of their flight from Somalia and the difficulties in setting up in the UK, the additional worry of where he would house his family began to take a toll on Abdikairm’s mental and physical health – further eroding his confidence just as he was in the process of applying for jobs.

Addressing the housing needs of refugees

Housing shortages often have a disproportionate impact on refugees, increasing their already fragile social balance.  The Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust (hact) is a London based charity that has been attempting to create housing solutions for refugees and migrants for the past 15 years of their 45 years of operation.

Hact aims to develop, test and promote practical housing solutions to improve social inclusion in all segments of society, but also with particular projects aimed at older people and migrants and refugees. As part of the work on refugees, in 2004, Hact launched Accommodate, a programme targeted towards refugees. The aim is to help meet housing demand in refugee communities in five cities in England. Accommodate was a time limited project that helped to facilitate partnerships between refugee community organizations (RCOs), housing associations, local authorities and other voluntary and statutory agencies. Bringing these groups together would then allow a housing action plan to be created that incorporates both the current and projected housing needs of refugees in each partner city. These action plans however were not limited to getting refugees into housing but aimed to promote the wider integration of refugees by including their needs into mainstream thinking and practice in the area of housing policy.

Accommodate Sheffield

Somali Mental Health Project (MAAN) is a refugee community organization (RCO) which has been in operation since 1994 providing free specialist mental health services within the Somali community in Sheffield which can include anything from counseling, interpreting, home visits, to information and assistance on housing, health and social services. Individuals like Abdikarim who are encountering mental health problems, such as from the stresses of seeking asylum, unemployment and khat addiction, can turn to MAAN for help in identifying the right health services, making appointments and being part of conversations with the doctor. As a result of fifteen years of working in the Somali community, MAAN is well known for its ability to successfully offer culturally appropriate services for Somalis.

MAAN, therefore, was a strong contender for hact’s national call for partnerships because of its clear sense of purpose, its connection and reputation in the community, its existing resources, and strong organizational structures. MAAN became the lead partner in Accommodate Sheffield, a partnership that consisted of refugee community organizations, housing associations, health service providers, Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield City Council. The goal of the Sheffield partnership was to build capacity amongst the different partners. Smaller RCOs could learn how to extend their service provision from larger organizations and local mainstream agencies, such as council and health services, could benefit in training and raising awareness on refugee mental health and housing issues. As well, all organizations would work to improve access and quality of services for this group. For example, their Refugee Housing and Well-Being Awareness Day in 2006 had presentations on housing, the private rented sector and  mental health promotion. It brought in over 100 attendees.

In addition to increasing the impact of service delivery, the Sheffield-based partnership influenced local and national mental health strategies by raising awareness of refugee issues through their substantial casework. During the partnership, destitution among asylum-seekers became a pressing issue for the partnership organizations to address. In 2006, they had over 400 cases in just the Kurdish community alone.  Because these individuals do not qualify for benefits and often receive no support, the partnership made it their duty to ensure they received the appropriate support.

Building agendas based on city need

Accommodate Sheffield was just one of five partnerships that made up  the second phase of Accommodate that focused on the delivery of practical services. The first phase saw the creation of ten city partnerships across England, with each partnership developing action plans to reflect the social needs and realities of the given area. Five of the ten partnerships were then given small grants to implement their action plans over a two year period.

Different cities developed housing actions plans that reflected their partnerships interests as well as the needs of the local refugee communities. For example, Accommodate Bolton involved its Somali community in a refugee-led community initiative focused on investing in a number of properties. Accommodate Bradford focused on providing advice to refugees during their ‘transition period’ as described in Abdikarim and Fawzia’s case. As well, refugees and young volunteers from disadvantaged backgrounds worked together to refurbish the properties in which participants were to live for the Accommodate Leeds. The Accommodate North West Birmingham partnership sought empowerment through a different means, as there the refugees advocated the needs and aspirations of their communities to housing and regeneration policy makers and practitioners.

The Sheffield partnership built a network of organizations to raise the awareness of the link between refugee mental health and housing with the aim of improving integration. The project was true to the concept of integration, in that the aim was to provide better services to refugee communities, to enable their access to services, and also to influence mainstream services and policies to recognize the presence and needs of refugees. The partnerships enabled participants to learn and build on each other’s expertise while also addressing immediate concerns such as the destitution of refused asylum seekers. Through is partnerships,  MAAN has developed beyond its original mission and now extends its services to other refugee communities.


“My children are in school, myself and my wife are both working, which are good indications of the future. God willing, we intend to join the rest of the Sheffield community in developing Sheffield, the United Kingdom and the world at large! God Bless!” — Asylum seeker, hact report ‘Between Nass and a Hard Place’

The success of Accommodate comes from its recognition for the need of cross services delivery – in this case that refugees often face unique mental stresses as a result of their journeys and that assistance with practical issues such as housing can do a great deal to alleviate these pressures.   As well, the strong role of partnerships that were also focused on a common aim, was another essential component of their success. All five partnerships were based in different areas of recent refugee migration and provided lessons for the future of refugee and new migrant housing provision. The aims included building better partnerships, pioneering housing and support solutions for refugees, empowering refugee community organizations, and changing policy and practice.

Making it Work for You:

  • Share your reults! In addition to increasing the impact of service delivery, the Sheffield-based partnership influenced local and national mental health strategies by raising awareness of refugee issues.
  • When your goals and objectives are clear, it becomes easier to adapt program design to respond to local capacity and funder interests.
  • Working collaboratively builds local capacity for all stakeholders.

Themes: Live, Housing