Homelessness is not normal.
Homelessness will never be normal.
But Homelessness is on the rise in the North; it has exploded, whether it's roofless, rough sleepers or hidden sofa-surfers, or families struggling to get by in temporary and overcrowded accommodation. The Department for Communities, NI Housing Statistics has shown from 2016/17 there was 18,573 households applying to be presented as Homeless with nearly 12,000 households being accepted as homeless. With only a mere decrease of 55 applicants in one year accompanied by a decrease in Prevented Applications were homelessness has been prevented through the Housing Executive, another agency or the applicant themselves. These are startling facts to say the least but to merely label these numbers as 'statistics' would be inhuman - these are families, individuals and most worryingly - our youth.
From my own experience in volunteering at St. Patrick's Soup Kitchen, from working in the kitchen to working in outreach in Belfast City Centre, there are a number of rough sleepers in need of food and water, but what goes unnoticed, is the need for conversation, understanding and empathy. The latter shouldn't be taken lightly, for the amount of spare change that's thrown in a cup, or the amount of sandwiches given out, can you think about how often a rough sleeper is being treated not as coin box; but a human? What also goes unnoticed is not NI's rough sleepers but sofa-surfers and those in overcrowded accommodation. From all across Belfast the Soup Kitchen has delivered boxes of food, drink, clothes and toiletries. These individuals are part of the 'unseen' side of homelessness. They can find themselves in dangerous situations and at risk of abuse, assault and exploitation if they are, sofa surfing, sleeping from hostel to hostel or even on public transport.
Young people are also affected, particularly young people who identify as LGBTQ+. A study commissioned by the Housing Executive, conducted by the Rainbow Project and Council for the Homeless NI requested the housing and homelessness experiences of the LGBTQ+ community and heard this affects those who are not eligible for homelessness support and people fleeing domestic violence. Family rejection was the most popular reason for homelessness amongst LGBTQ+ people followed by relationship breakdown. Family rejection was usually a result of conflict associated with the respondent’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. In some instances, this resulted in immediate homelessness and in other instances it played a role in later experiences of homelessness as a source of support and in removal of accommodation. Trans people were particularly vulnerable to repeat episodes of homelessness and could experience frequent moves in accommodation because of regular and sustained transphobic abuse, both verbal and physical. Trans respondents in the report said that they experienced "persisted anxiety" and "fear for their safety."
Furthermore, a recent research study by the Council for the Homeless Northern Ireland called “Young People Telling It Like It Is" sheds light on the accommodation and support (or potential long-term lack of) for homeless young people aged 16-21. Many of the young people participating in the study had a range of complex needs such as mental health difficulties, a history of self-harm, and had very low self-esteem as well as experiencing childhood abuse. At the time the research was conducted, the young people in the study were satisfied with the physical standards of their accommodation. The report also conveyed that young people’s immediate and practical needs were being met, however, there was no evidence to conclude whether the same was true for their longer term specialist needs.
So, how does this map out in our current political crisis? Between RHI Investigations, a Power-Sharing deadlock and consistent cuts to our Health Services and Education Budget. Where is the progress towards tackling homelessness and building more Social Housing?
It's not easy to find. However, after winning her Assembly seat in March 2016, Nichola Mallon MLA (SDLP) tabled a Private Member's Bill to tackle the chronic issue. Notably saying, "it was out of frustration at the futility of this disconnect and pervading misconception among government departments that homelessness is simply rooflessness which led me to table a PMB at the first opportunity." Mallon's intention was to bring forward legislation which places a 'statutory duty' on all government departments to tackle homeless of all kinds. Although, since the collapse of Stormont this bill has also subsequently collapsed, meaning any form of progress in the Assembly and all government departments is nonexistent.
More so, DUP Leader Arlene Foster in her Leader's Speech at the DUP Annual Conference said "A Government's only job is to serve the people. It is there to protect the people, provide the vulnerable with a safety net". Yet, with no Government, and the roll out of Bedroom Tax in 2020 (which both the DUP and Sinn Féin voted for) as well as the roll out of Universal Credit from a Tory-DUP Government we see no Government in The North, nothing to protect our citizens and no safety net, especially for our homeless citizens.
Even more surprisingly, despite this chronic issue, Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin's Northern Leader) has dismissed the reboot of the institutions in saying "The talks process has run its course. Sinn Féin will not be supporting nominations for Speaker or the Executive". Nor has homelessness been mentioned in O'Neill's vision of an "Assembly operating on the basis of equality and respect and rights for all in society". Surely a right to a home, a home of safety for an individual, a couple, a family, our youth, is a right worth talking about? Surely there's a better solution than sidelining the opportunities which can be achieved in a devolved Assembly, for those facing homelessness, for the LGBTQ+ community and Irish Language speakers. Our current alternative? A British Conservative Government in partnership with the DUP...
Nevertheless, with a local Government or not, homelessness will remain a dire issue in our society. An issue affecting the young, old, black, white, green, orange, dissenter - anyone. Whether it's visible to you or not, it's happening and in approaching 2018 this needs to be the crisis' final breath.
When you sit down for your Christmas dinner tomorrow, remember your luxuries, remind yourself of those who are less fortunate. What matters is not your phone that you read this on, not your Christmas turkey, but your front door key.
You can donate food, water, clothes, sleeping bags, toiletries or your own time to a homeless shelter, food bank or soup kitchen near you.
Again, homelessness in not normal.
Homelessness will never be normal.
Make 2018 the year we end homelessness.
Chris Anderson is a 17 year old student, Homeless Volunteer and member of SDLP Youth Executive from North Belfast.