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Room For Refugees: how to turn 9,000 spare rooms into emergency homes

In 2020, a small Scottish charity provided refugees with 43,529 nights of free shelter - using just two members of staff, volunteers, and a bunch of typeforms.

  • ChallengeHomelessness is a problem for many asylum seekers in the UK. Some migrants are eligible for government housing, and some aren't. Even those who are eligible often face a period of homeless whilst completing the necessary paperwork.
  • SolutionA community-based house-sharing initiative that matches up homeless refugees and migrants with spare accommodation. Hosts register their spare rooms through a typeform, which sends new entries to a database via a Knack integration.
  • ResultOver 9,000 spare bedrooms have been registered to Room For Refugee's database. Last year, they provided 43,529 nights of free shelter to people who urgently needed it.

Your home country isn't safe, so you've crossed oceans or skies to start a new life in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the road to legal residency as a refugee is excruciatingly complex. You must work with a lawyer to make a claim. It's rare to have watertight evidence that you meet all of the criteria for asylum. And the whole process can take months, or years. Even then, 53% of cases in 2020 were refused on the first attempt. 

While you're waiting to be legally recognized as a refugee, claiming state accommodation is a tangle of if-but-thens. While the decision is pending, you can't earn money; you don't have the right to work. Therefore, there are destitute migrants on the streets of the UK. 

A solution rooted in community action 

In 2002, Robina Qureshi, director of the charity Positive Action in Housing, began to notice more and more homeless migrants on the streets of Glasgow. She founded the first community hosting initiative in western Europe - Room For Refugees. In its beginning, it helped turn around dozens of lives. A small but successful activist network.  When the European Migrant Crisis hit in 2015, Room For Refugees was flung into the spotlight. Millions living under conflict and persecution in African and Greater Middle Eastern countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea were forced to seek refuge in Europe. At the end of 2014, there were almost 60 million displaced people in the world, the highest figure since WWII.

Amidst news reports of inhumane refugee camps and tragedies in the Mediterranean, Room For Refugee's phone was ringing off the hook. The need for emergency accommodation was high, and hundreds of people were inspired to lend their spare rooms. 

Problem was, the rooms all needed to be manually logged into a database. And with only two members of staff, this just wasn't feasible.

Streamlining the admin 

Room For Refugee's solution was to automate the sign-up process. Instead of just sending an email, would-be hosts are now asked to fill out a typeform about where they live, what sort of accommodation they're offering, and how long they can host for. This typeform is integrated with Zapier, and through that, hooked up to the database software, Knack. Every time someone fills out the Typeform, an entry automatically appears in Room For Refugee’s Knack database, including all of the details they filled out.

Check out their typeform for yourself (Heads up: this version is a dummy! If you live in the UK and want to register your spare bedroom for real, head over to Room For Refugees' website.) 

The typeform is set so that the team gets an email when someone submits a spare room. This gives them all of the information they need to triage new hosts. 

“I can look at the postcode and can instantly see whether a new host is in a high demand area, like Glasgow, Manchester, London or Brighton. If it’s someone in a high demand area, I’ll set up a call right away. If they’re in, say, rural Somerset, then I will hold off until we need a room there. ”

Freya Dargavel, Coordinator, Room for Refugees

It's useful to have this automation so that Coordinator, Freya Dargavel, can spend her time on things that need a human touch. 

“This setup with Typeform and Knack is kind of like another member of staff, because it does so many of my admin-related tasks.”

Freya Dargavel, Coordinator, Room for Refugees

One of the keys to the initiative's success is ensuring a good match between a host and a guest, which can only be done with in-person meetings, phone calls and good, old-fashioned emotional intelligence. A successful host/guest placement can bring enormous positive change.  At the end of a stay, each guest and host is sent another typeform to review the experience. The responses are sent directly to Freya's inbox, which keeps her aware of any issues raised.

“During quarantine, people were on top of each other in the house. It was easy from the feedback to see that this was an issue, so we put in a bit more support for people. ”

Freya Dargavel, Coordinator, Room for Refugees

However, in many cases, it's just rewarding to read about the positive impact of this vital work.  

“The nicest thing is that sometimes you get an email with really lovely feedback where people say how much they enjoyed it, and how valuable the experience was.”

Freya Dargavel, Coordinator, Room for Refugees

To have a home is to have options

Without safe housing, having the energy and physical means to undergo a lengthy legal battle would be almost impossible. Case in point, is the story of Simon.*

Simon had been in the UK for 20 years. He lived with his girlfriend and two young sons, and was working as a Premier League footballer. Under the terms of his original asylum claim, he has to reapply for his residency every five years. He knew the process, it was a routine piece of bureaucracy. However, in 2020, his renewal was denied.

Simon was confident that he'd be granted residency on appeal. But, with no residency permit, could no longer legally work in the UK, nor access benefits. To top it off, he and his girlfriend split up, so he no longer had a place to live. He became street homeless. 

During this period of chaos, he came to Room For Refugees. It happened to be good timing. Just the week before, someone had offered them a whole empty flat. Simon stayed there for a few months and was able to resubmit an asylum claim. A decision is still pending, so he can't travel from Scotland to England to visit his sons yet. However, his case is progressing.  *Guest's name has been changed for reasons of privacy.

“Positive Action in Housing [the mother organization of Room for Refugees] has been there for me 100%, helping me with food, cash, support and a place to stay until I could get back on my feet. I’m hoping to return to semi-pro football when I get my papers and take a trip to England to visit my two sons. ”

Simon* , Guest, Room for Refugees

A cause for celebration 

Since starting as a small activist group in Glasgow almost two decades ago, Room For Refugees has expanded and matured. It now operates in the whole of the UK and occasionally, in the US and Europe too. For a charity run on a shoestring, the numbers are astonishing: over 9,000 offers of shelter have passed through this typeform. In 2020, Room For Refugees arranged safe accommodation for over 200 men, women, children and families. 

However, the numbers speak very little to the true worth of this program. In some cases, young people who were stuck sleeping in doorways have been able to go to university and pursue fulfilling careers. In other cases, lonely retirees who opened up their homes gained a new sense of purpose and companionship. As a direct result of being hosted, four destitute parents whose children would have been removed by social services have been able to stay together, as a family. 

For hundreds of guests, accommodation arranged by Room For Refugees has lent more than just safety and dignity. It has freed them up to reassert agency over their lives, after a period when bureaucracy had taken that agency away. 

Next Steps:

  • Donate to Room for Refugee's parent charity, Positive Action in Housing. They have an emergency hardship fund for migrants here

  • Check out our charity donation form template.

  • Watch how Carefree, a UK charity who provides free breaks for unpaid carers, also uses Typeform and Knack.

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