When 25-year-old Semira called our Private Rented Scheme service earlier this year, she was desperate. Semira is an Eritrean refugee who had fled her home country when her family were persecuted for being Christian. She spoke little English and all she could tell us initially was that she had suffered a long, frightening journey to the UK, and that she was now homeless, sleeping rough in London.

“My journey was difficult. It was very stressful. When I came to the UK, I thought I would find something kind, that things would be better.”

As Semira was in good health, and had no children, she wasn’t classed as “priority need”, so the Local Authority wouldn’t offer her any accommodation. Semira was told she would need to survive alone on the streets of London for six months before she would qualify for any kind of housing.

Our Private Rented Scheme is often the last hope for refugees like Semira – people who have no deposit, no references, and no British passport. The way we work means a refugee like Semira stands a really good chance of finding long-term accommodation. We vet each individual refugee and landlord to find the best match, and also provide ongoing support to help someone like Semira settle in and understand their responsibilities as a tenant.

The wait for Semira’s asylum claim to be sorted was incredibly stressful for her. She was given £37.75 a week to live on – just £5.39 a day – and struggled to make any sort of life for herself. When Semira was finally granted refugee status, she was so happy. But what she didn’t realise was that she would be evicted from her asylum accommodation and forced to find somewhere to live without any support. After living on £5.39 a day, and being banned from working while her claim was being processed, there was no way Semira could save the money for a deposit.

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Semira told us that during those nights on the street, she’d wake up and, for a brief moment, wouldn’t know whether she was in Sudan, Belgium, Ethiopia or Leeds. Then the reality dawned on her. She was sleeping at a train station in London, with no money, no home and no family or friends to turn to.

The phone call Semira made to us changed everything – we found her a safe, secure home in just a few days. Semira called us on Thursday, we found a suitable place on Friday, she went to meet her prospective landlady on Saturday, and moved in on Sunday.

“On Sunday I moved in and on Monday I slept all day! I think having a place of your own to sleep is even more important than having food. When I was homeless, at night I would realise "Oh, I haven’t had any food today" because I was so overwhelmed by being homeless."

Semira has been in her new home for six weeks and after all she’s been through – all the places she’s had to sleep – she still sometimes wakes up not knowing where she is. But now, when Semira remembers, the happiness is overwhelming.

“When I realise that I’m in my bed, somewhere I can cook some food, that happiness... there are not enough words to explain. I feel SO happy.”

Unfortunately, there are many other homeless refugees who will need our help this Christmas. 1 in 2 refugees have had to sleep rough, or in a homeless shelter, after being forced to leave asylum accommodation.

This year, because of the pressure on services due to the COVID-19 crisis, the numbers could be higher.

Now Semira has a safe, long-term home, she wants to start making a new life. That means finding a job. She’s learning English and is determined to be a positive part of her new community. Having a place to call home is the  beginning of a brighter future for Semira.

"I want to build my confidence, apply for jobs and live like everybody else."

All names and photos have been changed to protect the identities of those we work with.

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