Lisa Norcross, Development Co-Ordinator at Together Lancashire, talks to us about their Lancashire Sanctuary Homes Project for refugees and destitute asylum seekers, and the challenges and rewards of turning an existing grassroots support network into a new charitable initiative.

Tell us when and how the Lancashire Sanctuary Homes Project run by Together Lancashire came about?

Blackburn has been a dispersal area since 2004 and, particularly in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers whose cases have failed, childless couples and young single refugees in desperate need of housing support. Through my work at (NACCOM member) the ARC Project Blackburn, overseeing their English Language provision, and via my church network, I began to see the real problems faced by these vulnerable groups when accessing housing in the area. Together Lancashire has also been working across Lancashire supporting churches in their work with refugees and asylum seekers for years, and around a year ago in 2018, approached me and asked if I would work with them to start the Lancashire Sanctuary Homes Project.

What does the project offer?

The project is still in its early days, but our aim is to set up a guarantee and deposit scheme to help refugees into good quality accommodation, as well as acquire bricks and mortar property to house refugees and destitute asylum seekers. In addition, we’re also establishing a Lancashire Hub within Refugees at Home to provide a hosting network across Lancashire.

What is your role in the project?

I’m the Development Co-ordinator, working one day a week, and my role is to try and get the project fully off the ground. Often my role involves trying to find the people who have the resources to get things done, and linking them up with the people with the heart and ‘know how’ to do it. For example, I’m currently setting up the Lancashire Hosting Hub with Refugees at Home. There is some existing informal hosting going on across Lancashire, but I am working with Refugees at Home to run a Hosting Roadshow across the county to get people to sign up as home visitors, hosts and referrers. I use my local contacts and the network of Together Lancashire to get the word out and get people to come to the events, and Refugees at Home can bring their specialism as hosting experts with all their systems already in place. Once we have a Lancashire Hub established hopefully Together Lancashire will be able to deliver training to the hub and facilitate a support network across the county, whilst the mechanics of hosting are delivered by Refugees at Home.

Going forward, we are hoping to work with more partners in this way, to ensure that what we deliver is sustainable in the long term.

Recently we have also been approached by a church in the centre of Blackburn with a large office block they would like to change into flats to accommodate refugees, failed asylum seekers and other individuals at risk of homelessness. My role within the project has been to find a charity used to working in this field (managing tenancies) and a housing association big enough to take the building work on. In the end, if the project is successful, Together Lancashire may well have no role in the day-to-day running of the project, but we will have enabled the project to come into fruition. This particular project is a challenge and ultimately it will only work if the financials stack up for all the parties involved, so we have been working closely with Dave Smith and Paul Catterall at NACCOM, who have been able to help direct us towards various sources of funding and to point us in the direction of similar projects for inspiration and ideas.

What have been the particular challenges of the project (and how are you overcoming them)?

Ultimately, to house destitute asylum seekers, we are looking for individuals to loan or donate us housing stock. To-date, no one has come forward and offered us free housing, although we are always trying to forge links with potential investors. We have good links with a charity who could manage and run these properties for us, so it’s unlikely we will become a ‘hands on’ housing provider, more of a facilitator linking people with property to a charity with the skills to handle all aspects of the tenancy. We would then connect with the agencies working with refugees and asylum seekers who could refer people into the scheme.

What advice would you give someone wanting to set up a similar project?

Keep going! There have been times when it looked as though nothing was working out but by persevering this far, we are now beginning to see progress. Never give up hope. 

Get involved with a network. It has been invaluable to have the support of NACCOM from day one. It is great to meet up with others doing similar work and bounce ideas off each other. NACCOM is big enough to be effective but small enough to have a local focus, so you can really get to know other members personally.

Get out there. I try to go to every meeting I can and take up every opportunity to speak to any group that will have me. I link up with local multi-agency forums, faith groups, community groups etc. Tell people about the work you are doing and be cheeky and ask for what you need.  I’m still hoping that one day, maybe tomorrow, someone will say yes and give me a house!

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love the fact that my role is challenging and exciting. When I started last year, we had nothing in place. Now we are on the verge of a three-million-pound town centre building project and about to launch a hosting roadshow which could see the growth of hosting provision across the county. It seems an impossible task to house individuals who are destitute, but I feel like the project has come a long way in a year and we are on the verge of some exciting developments. Having one day a week to devote to the project gives me time to take a step back from the day-to-day work of supporting refugees and asylum seekers. It helps me see the bigger picture and gives me time to link up with busy individuals to see what more can be achieved when people work together.