Take Back Control

Entry by: Perstimmons

23rd November 2018
I want to tell you about an amazing organisation, how it was built, how it has come to the point where it almost folding and how it now needs to be rescued from the brink.

When my husband retired we were living in a tied farmhouse, as he was a farmer for most of his life. We moved to suitable temporary accommodation and began looking for a new home.

In 2009 we went to the Leeds Piano Competition. Because Paul did his degree in agriculture in Leeds and I was born in Yorkshire, the surroundings felt familiar and we decided to house hunt there. We moved into our new home in August 2010, in Huddersfield. Huddersfield was not our first choice, but my husband had never owned his own home before (being always in tied accommodation) so he was very particular about what he wanted: two or three bedrooms, a view (since the farm had a view of fifty miles in any direction and on a good day you could see Hay Bluff), a private outside space, a large garden, a small amount of land, some outbuildings... Huddersfield was what we could afford and the dream home was there, so Huddersfield it was.

After a couple of months, I was looking around for something to do and I happened to see the local refugee website on the day they were having a meeting. When I turned up, there were around forty people in the room and the discussion focused on the needs of refused asylum seekers, who do not have any right to accommodation or government support. Many were thought to be sleeping rough and the speaker at the meeting, Robert Spooner, explained how they had set up an organisation in Sheffield to help with this problem, called ASSIST. It was proposed to create something similar in Huddersfield and my hand went up to become involved, along with three or four others'. I had never done anything like this before, although I had experience of asylum seekers, having lived in Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.

The group decided to call itself ASSURE. Its objects were to provide accommodation through a hosting scheme and in time run a night shelter for destitute asylum seekers. At the time, Kirklees Council ran a centre for new asylum seekers where they were housed and their paperwork processed before moving into local accommodation whilst their claim was assessed. The centre was keen to get a scheme up and running.

My fellow committee members were, shall we say, well intentioned but unable to move things forward. I applied for some money to run a hosting scheme and got it. Then I began making phone calls to try to find hosts. One of my first calls was to my local rector. Not being a Christian, I had only spoken to him once before, but he was very enthusiastic and proposed that a former school building belonging to the church be used as a night shelter.

Through an unfortunate combination of events, the announcement of this proposal did not go as planned. Richard, the rector, called me on Easter Saturday to say he had been summoned to the local pub to 'discuss things' and I arrived at the Beaumont Arms about ten minutes later. A small group of local men were already in heated argument with Richard. Why asylum seekers? Why here in the 'village'? People wouldn't be safe: children would be harassed and abused: life would never be the same. I tried to answer honestly about what we were planning and the tiny scale of it - two people as part of a pilot scheme - but they were having none of it.

Richard and I had planned a public meeting in late May so there could be a discussion about the idea. It was to be a genuine exchange of ideas on how the difficulties facing destitute people could be partially resolved by opening a night shelter. Meanwhile there were petitions in the shops and the Post Office, metal plaques going up saying 'No failed asylum seekers here' and a local councillor going from house to house with a petition which had no information as to who was sponsoring it or why. I was strongly advised to cancel the meeting. I refused.

The police were contacted when we became aware that the English Defence League were planning to attend the meeting in force, and we were provided with full support. Around a hundred and fifty people turned up to the meeting. Probably about a hundred of them wanted to lynch Richard and I. The Chair could not keep order and we were shouted down. In the end Richard asked everyone if they would feel happy with asylum seekers being hosted in local people's homes. They were absolutely nonplussed. Why would anyone object to someone being a guest in a house, they said. They were sure we would have no offers, so it was fine with them.

I've never been much of a leader, although I have certain dug my heels in for what I thought was the right thing to do. To my mind, these people were dupes of the tabloid media, good-hearted yet fearful. I was going to prove them wrong. Big time.

By the following November, Paul and I had hosted an elderly lady from Somalia for six weeks whilst she waited for the support to which she was entitled, and helped her move into the accommodation provided, an upstairs room in a house up a steep hill, shared with three young black women who did not get on with each other, and totally unsuitable for her needs. I could see there was no impetus to put in some hard graft on getting an accommodation scheme going with ASSURE, so I left them and set up DASH: Destitute Asylum Seekers Huddersfield.

I found hosts - Richard and his wife at the rectory, other clergy, a lovely elderly couple from Richard's congregation (who hosted a man from Pakistan in his fifties who had been an international hockey player in his youth and loved to dance: he danced for them with great joy and exuberance), a nurse from another church I visited (who has since gone to work on a mercy ship) and of course Paul and I. Paul was dead against it. He would always say,
'They're not stopping here,'
and I would ignore him. As we had only been married for about a year at the time, this could have been a deal breaker. But as Paul saw a different side of me he gradually began to accept what was happening. He had lost his wife to a cause and he started to see it was a just one. I remember the morning when he asked me how the Home Office could treat someone we were talking about so badly, and I teased him saying,
'Is this Paul who's speaking? I didn't know anyone else was here.'

By January 2012 the hosting scheme was in full swing. Somebody had kindly gone into the back of my car in the previous October, causing enough damage for it to be a write off but not enough for me not to be able to drive it, and for it to pass an MOT. With the insurance money I was able to pay a small hosting fee in addition to bus money to clients to get to their accommodation. Most hosts refused the fee. The local council-run centre referred clients and were very up front about any possible difficulties, but there were few.

The following year, the Home Office announced they were going to award housing contracts to large providers and G4S replaced the council facility. Concerned as to the repercussions of this, housing monitors were trained up to check on accommodation where problems were reported. This was a real struggle in the beginning, with G4S being unwilling to listen to complaints, but eventually there emerged a brilliant team of G4S housing officers who try really hard within the constraints of an appalling system to ensure people have a decent place to live which is properly heated and secure.

Of course, when any asylum seeker in Huddersfield had a problem, they would go to the council centre, who tried their best to help. With the centre clearly destined for closure, the next step was for DASH to open a drop in, at Samaritans. An old friend of Paul's stepped up to the plate and helped enormously with the set up, the running of it, and with excellent advice.

Gradually the drop in grew, moved, grew again, moved again, etc. Around a hundred people attend each week now, with over four hundred on the books. DASH provides not only accommodation, but financial support, emotional support, help with getting children into nearby schools, English classes, lifts for people who are afraid of reporting to the Home Office in Leeds in case they are detained (to ensure they and stay legal), fresh fruit and vegetables for families and destitute clients, support for clients in detention, and a whole lot more. (If you're interested have a look at the website at www.huddsdash.org.uk).

This isn't the end of the story.
The support offered was second to none.
Huddersfield was the only place in the UK where asylum seekers are not sleeping rough. It was the only place where very few people are detained (on average one percent or less).
It was the only place where no-one was deported back to their home country to face death or persecution or disgrace.
It was a shining beacon of love and compassion, of volunteers who wanted to come forward to help (including a volunteer who is now a local MP), of clients who were encouraged to volunteer as cook or cashier or translator for example, a place where people could meet their friends, have a hot meal, be given financial support if they met the criteria (which were pretty broad), where there was hope for a brighter future.

I say was.

Now comes the sad part. Naturally doing all this for large numbers of people took a toll on my health. In the second year DASH employed a caseworker and, in 2017, a finance officer, fundraiser and volunteer co-ordinator. A totally brilliant volunteer, Mike, who had been a head teacher, took on a lot of the work. Although I was able to take long-ish breaks of a month or two, it all became too much.

I decided to retire in November 2017, after six years. Before I left, I had tried to ensure the smooth running of the organisation and had raised a substantial amount of money for them to carry on. In the three months prior to my retirement it became obvious that there were serious differences between two staff members so I returned to try to sort things out. This precipitated a mental breakdown for me and I withdrew completely. Both staff members left - one made redundant, the other left voluntarily - when DASH funds began to run out. (Funds running out was a constant black cloud, but I always managed somehow to come up with more money from somewhere, probably because people could see I was doing a good job with very little support and it was making a fundamental difference to clients' lives).

Now, there's trouble at t'mill and they want to stop doing accommodation and curtail cash payments to clients. Mike resigned last week and so did the finance officer. The others are looking for new jobs. Seven hundred asylum seekers will be left with no real support. Perhaps DASH will fold soon.

I expect I'll think of something.

But for six years Huddersfield was the gold standard. And if I'm caught short anywhere, I'll always be within a couple of minutes of a warm welcome and a loo.