There is no shortage of misinformation about migrants and others experiencing homelessness on social media – so the Museum of Homelessness has set out to debunk the myths. Image: Elvert Barnes / Flickr
Misinformation and fake news is a constant subject of controversy on social media – but now a group of grassroots campaigners have taken aim at the toxic narratives spread about people experiencing homelessness.
Museum of Homelessness (MOH) spent a year analysing social media counts with links to the far-right in a bid to uncover how baseless myths are spread by racist tweets and how they influence policies that continue to marginalise people.
MOH tracked 40 Twitter accounts with more than 5,000 followers, including Nigel Farage and former BNP chairman Nick Griffin, that discussed toxic narratives around homelessness and immigration.
This week the group released the report, titled Toxic, breaking down six often-repeated myths around homelessness and immigration and debunking them.
Jess Turtle, MOH co-founder, said the small-scale study was “sparked by the collective outrage” over reports of far-right groups intimidating homeless people housed in hotels during the Everyone In scheme during the pandemic in 2020.
“This report looks at how hate speech is structured and sharpens our toolkit in return,” said Turtle at the report’s launch.
“This report is a call to the homelessness sector to challenge racism and xenophobia as a status quo.”
Samir Jeraj, an investigative journalist who worked with MOH on the project, added that the Westminster policies have had a “significant impact” in creating an environment where “legitimising these toxic narratives can be playing into them.
Here are the six commonly repeated lies that MOH uncovered:
‘Migrants are being prioritised for housing’
What MOH found: The study found narratives which pit asylum seekers, refugees and migrants against housing rights for other members of society fostered an “us and them” approach.
The reality: “There is no priority given to people seeking asylum or migrating to the UK. They may be accommodated temporarily, as are homeless British citizens. The quality of this accommodation is often squalid.
“There are strict legal conditions under which people can be provided with longer-term housing under the Housing Act, and these legal conditions include certain immigration conditions. These do not give priority to asylum seekers or migrants.”
‘Migrants are more important than British veterans’
What MOH found: The claim that British veterans are left to sleep on the streets while migrants are given preferential treatment is commonly repeated on social media. It’s an issue The Big Issue reported on last year – Lee Buss-Blair, director of operations at Riverside housing association, told us: “I think all too often because the veteran issue is very emotive, my concern is sometimes that the public’s general support for veterans is hijacked by organisations who want to use it for their own objectives. They don’t care about veterans.”
The reality: “There is a considerable degree of nuance and complexity that is missed with these arguments.
“By creating an image of the ‘most deserving’ type of person experiencing homelessness, this narrative again sows division and allows for the building of stigma towards people of different backgrounds and experiences who may find themselves homeless. It is a highly effective and emotive way of presenting homelessness in the service of racism and xenophobia.
“Homelessness statistics about people who have served in the forces are not easy to quantify. Charities such as the Royal British Legion have been vocal on the issue saying in 2014 that it is a myth that many veterans sleep rough.”
What MOH found: This is a narrative that specifically relates issues around the demand for housing and the lack of supply due to high levels of immigration. This narrative has a sense that there are structural issues at play, but it places the blame either with migrants, asylum seekers and refugees themselves. This narrative plays on the idea that there are not enough resources to go around, and that ‘others’ are taking more than their fair share.
The reality: “Demand for housing is influenced by market forces that refugees and migrants have no control over. Specialists in the housing market have pointed to lockdown savings, stamp duty holidays and the switch to hybrid working as factors behind the explosion in house buying.”
“The impact of immigration to the UK, which has fallen considerably in the last two years, is not mentioned. The latest ONS figures show that immigration fell by 88 per cent in 2020”
‘Migrants sleeping on the streets arecriminals who should be deported’
What MOH found: This narrative uses derogatory, racist images of homeless people who aren’t British. This narrative often conflates Eastern Europeans and Roma, with two types of xenophobia at play, one related to Brexit and one much more ancient.
The reality: “Studies have suggested that this particular focus on Eastern Europe is connected to the post-Brexit, pro-leave press.
“This discrimination has filtered into homelessness policy since 2010, meaning that some rough sleeping populations are pushed further and further away from services for fear of deportation.”
‘Migrants are ungrateful for the housing we give them’
What MOH found: This narrative implies that people who come to the UK seeking safety are fussy, demanding, and do not have the right to expect certain standards of living that most people would consider to be decent and humane. One key use of this narrative has been Napier Barracks. But it is often applied to any housing offered by the Home Office.
The reality: “While Napier Barracks used to be accommodation for soldiers, as far back as 2014, it was deemed to not meet acceptable standards for accommodation and thus was planned to be sold to developers. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration described the accommodation at Napier Barracks as ‘impoverished, rundown, and unsuitable’, as well as finding that some areas were ‘filthy’.”
‘The destruction of countryside is worsened by migration’
What MOH found: This narrative is concerning because of the power of arguments related to the environment and the need to preserve green spaces. Due to widening acceptance of the climate crisis – coupled with the strong sense of British nationalism and recent ‘culture wars’ geared towards British heritage – this is a narrative to be watched.
The reality: “The idea that refugees and Asylum seekers will be housed on spacious rural or greenbelt land is factually inaccurate. People who are non-UK nationals seeking accommodation and/or asylum will initially be held in reception centres before being placed in emergency accommodation such as hostels or B&Bs style accommodation, while their legal situation is established.
“Individuals awaiting a decision on Asylum will almost never be housed in London or the south. They are instead accommodated in ‘dispersal’ accommodation that is primarily located in the Midlands, the north and in Wales and Scotland. Individuals have no choice on where they are sent.”