Rethinking Security’s new Outreach Coordinator Joanna Frew and her partner live in Martha House*, a ‘house of hospitality’ in north London with forced migrants who have no other means of support. Here she shares what she’s learnt about the value of a community setting for security over the last seven years.

Real human security, for me, is about more than an ideal set of socio-economic policies. It must be about belonging, inclusion and empowerment at all levels of our fragmented society. Even for those with the security of a British passport and access to work, benefits and free healthcare, our sense of connection to others beyond immediate family, and with it our sense of security, can still be hampered by feelings of alienation and isolation in a society that values paid work and the power to consume over community solidarity. For undocumented migrants and others on the sharp end of the Home Office’s hostile environment, whose options for both paid work and community life are deliberately limited, the sense of insecurity and isolation is compounded.

Solidarity through hospitality

The guests who come to Martha House are usually people who fall between the cracks of categories of asylum and immigration applicants that are entitled to Home Office support. They are barred from working and have ‘no recourse to public funds’. Unsurprisingly, destitution is often the result. Over time, people in this situation might have worked through their friendship networks – crashing on sofas or even in hallways for too long or borrowing money they can’t pay back – and feel they have no one left to turn to, leading to complete isolation.

Night shelters and hosting placements are life-saving, but these are usually short term (28 days or 3 months) so someone waiting over a year can find themselves in difficulty or constantly moving. At Martha House we can be more flexible because we are small and the community is built on trusting relationships. This can allow someone a chance to relax and have some respite, and being a bit more settled can help with accessing health care or regularly attending a class or other community or therapy group.

Although we are able to offer flexible hospitality and build open relationships, I am not blind to the fact that my partner and I have privilege and power that other residents don’t. Aside from the obvious UK passport, we are the only residents choosing to live in community, and when others come to the house it is because they have no other option. Moreover, although we say we live in solidarity – sharing the same space, food, neighbourhood and living in the same relationships – the provision is charitable and our position in the house holds a lot of weight and the authority to decide who stays and who goes. The set-up doesn’t work for everyone and it’s not always an easy place to be.

Yet, all that said, there are many shared benefits of living in community, which create a more equitable environment and a real feeling of belonging for all of us. First of all, I think there is a good balance between personal space and being a valued member of a community. In comparison with the (messy, sometimes glorious, sometimes self-destructive) shared houses of my 20s, having some rhythms and responsibilities to the week gives everyone, and especially newcomers, an opportunity to fit in more easily and feel included. We can take space when we want and need to, as well as experience companionship during and beyond times together. Responsibility towards each other and for the environment helps everyone feel valued. Who doesn’t get a little glow when six other people enjoy their cooking?!

Secondly, there is a tangible sense of solidarity between guests over immigration matters and, with me and my partner also, our opinions of the government. Between us all there is a good deal of knowledge about services and support that can be accessed for people in different situations like day centres, classes, travel money and volunteering. There is also a real empathy about each person’s successes and disappointments on the journey to getting papers. The sensitivity around how difficult that journey is means no one really pries into another’s business but can offer understanding and ideas when someone opens up. For my partner and I, we are deliberately separate from any statutory engagement or support so that we can be trusted with sensitive information.

Community and belonging

Finally, community brings with it a sense of belonging that goes a long way to overcoming the isolation that many people, not just those who are marginalised, feel in a city. A house of hospitality is able to act as a hub and allow an extended community to grow. For the six years before Covid lockdown, we had a weekly open meal when ex-residents, neighbours and other friends could drop in. From this, numerous friendships developed; people helping each other out and creating a local network that makes the area feel a little bit safer and more like home for those who have no family or roots in this country. Everyone who lives in the house is part of building that community, extending it across the neighbourhood.

For me, being in this community has shown me the value of not being the ‘expert’ and just a friend who will walk with people through their entire journey. Caseworkers and key workers are crucial but there is a role for people who don’t clock off at 5pm or move someone on to another organisation when they reach a certain point in their immigration process. For many people the withdrawal of a friendly face or the ability to phone a trusted support worker is unsettling and reinforces that insecurity and isolation. One of the most important things I can offer is time, especially in a society that values efficiency and outcomes above the slow process of community growth.

Living in Martha House also has a bearing on my own sense of safety and security in the world. Migrants and refugees are often regarded with suspicion, or as the ‘other’, even for those of us who believe migration and seeking asylum are human rights. The experiences people have gone through can make it seem impossible to connect. However, after hearing some of the worst stories of cruelty imaginable, having worked through conflict and hurt with people we open our home to, and after watching people take new directions in their lives, nobody is an ‘other’ any more. Labels like ‘illegal’, ‘scrounger’, ‘economic migrant’ and ‘cheating the system’, which are used to divide us, become meaningless. What I’m left with is a cliché – we are all human with the same desires and fears and just want to be accepted for who we are. That acceptance grows through time, trust, openness and shared experiences in community with each other, and in time our sense of belonging and security is multiplied.

*The roots of Martha House are in the Catholic Worker, a radical movement begun during the 1930s depression in the USA. The movement is made up of autonomous houses, mainly in North America but also across Europe. Catholic Workers are committed to “community, hospitality and resistance.” Resistance to the exploitative economic and social arrangements of capitalism, open houses of hospitality, and life in community.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Global Justice Now.