Homelessness in County Down

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Homelessness in Down.

Part 1 of the Homeless issue in County Down by Kevin McAteer.

The clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, people singing, laughing, welcoming in the New Year with open arms with hope, goodbye 2019, hello 2020.

Now, with Christmas just over and the festive season now a faint memory for another year gone by, we reflect on the importance of family during such a jubilant time and coming together which seems like a fresh start for some.

But I can’t lie when I write this…my New Year’s resolutions are the usual remarks of keeping fit and eating healthy, but I am reminded at the stroke of midnight of the support from my very small family circle and the encouragement I receive from my fiancée. Undoubtably I am very lucky in life to have the opportunities and support-base that I have.                                                                     

A homeless man sleeps rough on Market Street In Downpatrick at the end of December 2019.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. With Homelessness being one of many growing concerns in modern day Northern Ireland, we can be forgiven as members of the Body Politic for not knowing much about the issue whilst we plod through our own daily lives. Is this itself not part of the problem? Is there a lack of real knowledge on this issue? Perhaps ignorance, that we are content with as long as it’s not us, the shoal syndrome? There is nothing wrong with feeling sympathy for others or even feeling thankful whilst you read this, the empathy we feel for those who are Homeless is what keeps the Humanity alive that is needed to fuel any potential change in this increasingly growing situation.

Remember Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights States the Right to Adequate Living Standards. So how does someone become Homeless in a contemporary, western society?           

Let’s start on what could potentially lead a person to fall into the homeless bracket. When I say homeless, I am reminded of the customary image of a person in a sleeping bag at the side of the street begging for money, rancid, addicted to alcohol or drugs with an element of criminality.

But let’s be honest how many of you have walked along the other side of the street to avoid someone like this in your path?  Possibly the fear of vulnerability imprisoned on those who are Homeless may cause others to walk by? A vulnerability that is beset on others and not yourself it seems. This selfishness is arbitrary to the ignorance of the public who are content with the daily routine of walking past another human being ignoring them without remorse, without repent and without hesitation thanking God it’s not them. However, this image cannot be further from the truth. It seems this is a stigma that cannot be shaken as the old images of homelessness are resigned to history. Today, the rise of Sofa Surfing is the 21st Century image of Homelessness albeit a considerably hidden one. A 21st century issue plagued by 21st century problems.                                        

There are many reasons why people become homeless. Unsuitable housing (23.1%) and family breakdown (20.6%) are the main causes of Homelessness currently in Northern Ireland; and other factors including loss of rented accommodation (14.7%), marital/relationship breakdown (9.8%), neighbourhood harassment (8.2%) and no accommodation in Northern Ireland (7.7%). Ill mental health; rising costs of housing; bereavement; debt; and issues with addiction, and other factors are behind 15.9% of the homelessness experienced in Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland Housing Statistics 2017-18).

A shortage of affordable housing is a key factor in the Homelessness experienced in Northern Ireland. The number of applicants on the social housing waiting list in Northern Ireland at 20 March 2018 was 36,198; with 24,148 households deemed to be in ‘housing stress’ (Northern Ireland Housing Statistics 2017-18). These are shocking figures which add fuel to the saying that many of us are only one pay packet away from Homelessness.                                   

According to the Simon Community’s website: “Sofa Surfing itself is (of a Homeless person) the practice of staying temporarily with various friends and relatives while attempting to find permanent accommodation.” An ever-growing problem in Northern Ireland but is Sofa Surfing classified as Homelessness? A question asked by many members of the public stuck with the past image of street beggars.                                                                                  

However according to the Collins Dictionary definition: “A sofa surfer is indeed classed as Homeless.  They are an individual, or family who have no fixed address of their own. They do not rent or own a property.  However they are not sleeping on the streets. Instead, they are staying with friends and/or family and even sometimes, acquaintances who have offered their good will.  This quite simply, is how couch surfing works.”                             

Thankfully we don’t have the same level of street homelessness experienced as in other parts of the UK and Ireland, but are people sometimes underestimating the problem? In essence are some people contemptuous about the sheer number of people affected by homelessness? Furthermore are they therefore moderately apathetic to a cause that requires Public support now more than ever?                                                                                        

According to the Simon Community: “Of the households presenting as Homeless to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, 33% are single men with no children. The highest presenters of homelessness are males aged between 26 and 59, with a total of 4,350 cases. Being a single male who is homeless can mean that the likelihood of receiving support with housing is extremely low.” This has resulted in a serious need for single accommodation housing which in turn presents further issues with availability and affordability.

According to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive statistics 2018-19 no accommodation available being one of the reasons for Homelessness has resulted in a serious lack of single one bed accommodation within the Housing Executive. Furthermore this has resulted in those in need looking to the private sector for accommodation. This presents its own issues as rents have increased and benefit cuts have resulted in those being unable to afford extortionate rent. In turn these people find themselves in the difficult position of living either in extremely poor housing run by so called slumlords, on the street or Charities such as the Simon Community. Will the new Executive and the Department for Communities’ Minister seek to change this?                                                  

The Simon Community have stated: “Homelessness in the area will continue to rise with the lack of social housing, the limited private rental market and the increased sanctions through Universal Credit. The Simon Community will continue to support those who are marginalised, and segregated from society. Those at risk of Homelessness or those who are indeed Homeless and we will continue to work towards a system that is just and fair for those most in need.”

The Simon Community in Northern Ireland continue to do amazing work within our community under exceptional circumstances and therefore should be commended. It seems it is not only single men or women who are affected by homelessness but families also. Shockingly “32% of those who presented as homeless are families, meaning that there are at least 6,000 children in Northern Ireland who are living in unsuitable, unstable housing (Northern Ireland Housing Statistics 2017-18).”                                                                

Imagine being in that position… take a minute to reflect on it. Imagine losing that security of a roof over your families head, the security blanket of a warm house, a warm bed, the things we take for granted. Imagine being so alone, cold, tired and worried. An anxiety you can’t escape from whilst you struggle to provide a home for your family. Imagine having to put your trust in a local charity such as the Simon Community or Women’s Aid to ensure you and your family do not end up on the street because your own Government have done very little to address the issue of Homelessness.

I’m not taking away from the amazing work the Simon Community do. I personally believe that we would be lost without them. However, the Simon Community in Newry has only 17 beds whilst Downpatrick has 9. After chatting to the Simon Community and discussing their lengthy waiting list its obvious they need improved and bigger accommodation, on the other hand I believe those beds would no doubt be filled over night. Perhaps it’s time the local political parties and politicians and even the local councils including central government worked closer together to obtain suitable premises for the Simon Community in our Newry Mourne and Down.     

The statistics are pretty shocking and a damning indictment of a Government that has failed to sit for 3 years. Thankfully, as off Friday 10th of January 2020, the Northern Ireland Assembly is now up and running but what can be said for three years of absence, three years of increasing Homelessness and three years whereby an issue so important has been cast aside by our political parties. Naturally the parties will jump to their defence stating they support changes in the issue, however, as one volunteer told me: “Homelessness is a 365 day issue not just an issue to turn up once to address and take a photo then disappear.”

When we focus on the causes of homelessness, it seems our Government and its policies are at the very core of the issue. Without a doubt , affordable social housing it is a system that needs a massive overhaul and it should be at the forefront of any newly formed Executive at Stormont in their Programme for Government.

(Kevin McAteer will be writing more on the subject of homelessness – keep an eye open on Down News!)

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