CNN spoke to half a dozen recently arrived refugees from Ukraine who have been left homeless in the UK after their relationship with British hosts deteriorated, leaving them confused and isolated – and faced with a huge amount of red tape.
The scale of the problem is not yet clear. The UK government reports that 77,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the UK since the start of the war under two different schemes: the Ukraine Family Scheme, under which Ukrainians can be placed by relatives in the UK; and the “House for Ukraine” scheme, where Ukrainians find a local “sponsor” through friends, charities, or even social media and jointly apply for a visa. According to the UK government, “the vast majority … are well settled”.
However, new preliminary data compiled by the UK government shows that between February 24 and June 3, 660 Ukrainian households turned to local authorities for help for the homeless. And these data do not reveal the whole picture. Social media groups for Ukrainian communities in London are overflowing with messages from people who have quarreled with their UK hosts.
Nearly a quarter of local authorities have yet to provide any data, and CNN has spoken to several refugees who have become homeless in these areas. Two startling stories from unrelated women reveal significant gaps in the schemes designed to help them.
Good luck note
Natalia Arnautova, 28, from Odessa, traveled alone to Reading, about 50 miles from London, in April. She was greeted at the airport by a couple in their fifties who she contacted through their website and who sponsored her visa under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. After a month of living together, the couple decided that the arrangement no longer worked and asked her to leave. She says the local authorities offered her only one option: a hostel for the homeless.
“The people who developed this program didn’t think through what happens when people don’t get along for whatever reason. And there are many reasons why things go wrong,” she told CNN in a telephone interview.
Arnautova admits her owners had disagreements, but says she didn’t expect she would have to move. According to Arnautova, she received a call from a translator who works for the local council.
“She said, ‘You have nowhere to live, you are being evicted tonight,’” she recalls. “I was in shock, crying.” Arnautova said she tried to persuade the council to give her a hotel room, but they did not agree. She refused the hostel because she did not feel safe.
She happened to be at a meeting of Ukrainians in Reading and was approached by one of the organizers who, since it was a Friday night, agreed to host her for a few nights.
“I went back to the empty house and started getting ready,” she said. “They left me a note in my room wishing me luck. No one saw me off or asked where I was going.”
Arnautova said the council made little effort after that: “Their working day ended at 5:00 pm on Friday. Two weeks later I got a call from the council and asked where I was.” Wokingham City Council told CNN it would not comment on specific cases.
Arnautova’s landlord, who asked to be identified only as Adrian, told CNN that there were some “minor issues at the property itself” that led to the relationship falling apart, and that he was unaware she was being offered a homeless hostel. He thought she would have a rematch with another owner, he said.
“We sorted out all the paperwork, doctors, national insurance, residence permit interviews… There was a lot of work, so personally I was disappointed that nothing came out,” he said. “I remember seeing the scenes on TV and thinking we should do something. We have a big house, a spare room, so why not?”
Adrian added that, in his opinion, Arnautova’s “heart was not in it” regarding life in Reading, and that she would like to be in London.
Proposed “Line of Life”
British Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said at the time that the scheme “offers a lifeline to those who have been forced to flee.”
The idea behind the placement scheme was, on the face of it, a good one, according to Sarah Nathan, co-founder of Refugees at Home, a charity that has been picking up refugees with hosts for the past seven years.
“I think our first reaction was, well, thank God, we appreciated that accepting people is the way forward,” she told CNN. “It’s a good way to integrate newcomers, traumatized newcomers.”
However, according to Nathan, one of the key issues is rematching when placements don’t work.
The UK government says boards now have access to a rematch system, which they should only use when hosting relationships are deemed unsafe or unreliable.
But several charities have told CNN that the remedy has arrived late and remains inconsistent and hard to come by. Government data shows that more than half of Ukrainian households applying for help for the homeless are currently in temporary housing.
“One Trivial Thing”
When CNN first contacted Natalia Limar, just days after being asked to leave by her UK hosts, she couldn’t finish the sentence without crying. Originally from Bucha, the 49-year-old woman survived several days of bombing and a horrifying encounter with a group of armed Russian soldiers at her home. This, she says, is even worse.
“It upset me so much that I felt like I was going through more stress right now, when I realized that I had to pack my bags, than in my basement in Bucha,” she told us two weeks later. “I felt like a homeless kitten who was being adopted.”
Lymar says she still doesn’t fully understand what went wrong with her first hosts.
“There was one banal thing, and I didn’t even know what they were unhappy with, then another, and even if they said something, then with such a smile that I thought everything was in order,” she explained.
“People are not necessarily compatible,” Nathan said. “It doesn’t mean they did something terrible, and it doesn’t mean you’re bad. You might just not get along for six months, which is a long time.”
CNN was unable to contact Lymar’s sponsors to comment on the story, but her friend, who initially helped her get close to them, confirmed she was asked to leave. Lymar and her friend tried to seek help from the council, but did not apply for homelessness because they could not complete the paperwork.
Nathan says the government should have anticipated such a scenario. “In any exercise of this magnitude, there will be failures. There will be places that don’t work. And there is no consistent rematch pattern that we would like to see.”
Approaching the “edge of the cliff”
Charities warn that too much responsibility falls on local authorities. Although local councils are still busy securing checks for new arrivals’ accommodation, they must also help when accommodation fails, without much guidance from the central government.
“We really wish the government had put more money into this,” said Denise Scott-McDonald, an adviser from Greenwich in southeast London. “If we don’t do this, then there will be a terrible situation for so many people coming from the war zone who will be completely traumatized, thrown into a system in which they do not know what is happening.”
The Soviets are already gearing up for a logistical “cliff edge” fast approaching even for those Ukrainians who are currently content with being hosted in the UK.
The hosts under the “Houses for Ukraine” scheme were asked to make a commitment for only six months. What’s worrying is what happens around September when the first arrivals start to hit that deadline.
“We [going to] be in the face of multiple families presenting themselves to all sorts of local authorities across the country,” Scott-McDonald said. Greenwich is currently dealing with 19 cases in which placement has been breached.
British Refugee Minister Richard Harrington said he hoped they would get jobs and eventually be able to rent their own accommodation. Home Secretary Priti Patel also defended the scheme, saying the government is paying the councils nearly $13,000 for every refugee.
Scott-McDonald says that after years of municipal budget cuts and a cost-of-living crisis, that’s not enough. She also wants the central government to communicate more to relieve the councils of the burden of doing everything alone. “We feel like the government has reacted reflexively to the crisis,” she said, adding that it has led to “chaos” for council staff and local residents trying to run the system.
Survival on your own
Both Ukrainian women CNN spoke to say they are now trying to find their way without the backing of a government scheme.
Lymar lives with a new host found through a local whatsapp group. This is a special arrangement. CNN understands that Lymar has not officially been rematched with a new host under the “Houses for Ukraine” scheme.
Arnautova is visiting friends in London. She could have asked for a rematch at the council where her previous owners lived, but says she would rather stay in London, continue her English studies, find a job and eventually rent her own place.
“When I arrived here, I was completely sure that I would be under protection for at least six months, that I would not have to think about where to live, what to do,” she said.
“Why did this happen. Why did they leave me on the street?”