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No way out and no way home – what are the links between homelessness and modern slavery in the UK?

Sam Parker, Data Analyst

Many of us may wonder how modern slavery can continue to exist in our society. Yet at Crisis, and through many of our partners, we hear of people experiencing homelessness who have faced exploitation – forced to take part in sex work, work as a live-in servant or take part in crippling manual labour, working all hours of the day for little to no money, scared and feeling there is no way out. No-one should be forced to live like this.   

Today we have published the first comprehensive study on the links between modern slavery and homelessness and the findings are stark. The research has been conducted as part of a multi-agency project in partnership with HestiaBawsoBelfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid, and Shared Lives.  
 
The data – based on 331 people who were in contact with services - shows a deep link between homelessness and modern slavery. We found that when people were first ‘recruited’ or coerced into exploitation, the most common living arrangements were either sofa surfing or rough sleeping, each accounting for roughly a quarter of cases. However, whilst the exploitation was ongoing, two thirds of victims were living in accommodation provided by or linked to their exploiters. This shows that people experiencing homelessness aren’t only more exposed to exploitation, but that modern slavery itself is often also a housing issue. It exploits people’s need for accommodation and can then turn that accommodation into a means of control.  
 
The government offers support for survivors of modern slavery through a system called the National Referral Mechanism, or NRM. However, we found that even for people who have been through this system, only a fifth had secured stable accommodation by the time that support ended. Over half (60%) were either in temporary accommodation or asylum accommodation, a fifth were still homeless. It is very difficult to imagine how someone could be expected to begin the long and difficult process of recovering from the trauma of modern slavery when they don’t know where they will be living in a month, three months or six months’ time.  
 
Furthermore, we found that a lot of people experiencing homelessness don’t actually want to enter the NRM, something we urgently need to discover the reasons behind. In the worst cases, survivors who are forced back into homelessness might find themselves being re-exploited again and again, as people facing homelessness continue to be targeted by perpetrators. 
 
This shows that we need to confront the uncomfortable idea that sometimes our society is pushing people into exploitation just as much as coercive traffickers are pulling them in. People may even willingly choose to enter an exploitative situation, not because they are naïve or vulnerable, but because they make the rational but desperate decision that even a dangerous job offer might be better than a life of destitution on the streets. 
 
The good news is that this gives us clear evidence on how we can break this link. Ultimately, this would mean making sure that everyone has access to a safe, stable home and meaningful and fair paid work. But right now, it means making sure that everyone who does experience exploitation can access stable housing as they recover. The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, which entitles survivors to at least 12 months of tailored support once recognised as a victim (a much-needed improvement on the current 45 days), would ensure this happens. It’s urgent that the government ensures it is passed as soon as possible.  
 
We also need to ensure that this tailored support includes rapid access to a safe long-term home so that survivors have the stability needed to recover from their trauma.  
 
There needs to be greater understanding as to why so many people refuse to accept government support from the NRM and make sure that everyone gets the right support, so no-one slips through the net and falls into re-exploitation. The links are now clear, and it’s time for us to start breaking this cycle.  

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