As Northern Ireland’s homeless figures hit historic highs, the crisis in Belfast has begun to spread from the City Centre into the suburbs.
Amidst a proliferation of those considered to be experiencing statutory homelessness, rough-sleeping, the most visible form of homelessness, has also become prevalent throughout parts of Belfast.
The Homelessness Monitor, Northern Ireland’s most recent figures show that, in Northern Ireland, there has been a steady and significant annual rise in the number of homeless since the early 2000’s, with figures reaching new record highs consistently since 2005/06. This prodigious rise is not paralleled in Britain, meaning that Northern Ireland has the highest homeless rate in the entirety of the UK, however, it is expected that the implementation of the Housing Solutions and Support programme, based on models already in effect in Great Britain, will see homeless rates move closer to that of the rest of the UK.
Around 18,600 families in Northern Ireland were presented as homeless, with over 11,000 of these being accepted as ‘Full Duty Applicants,’ meaning they were deemed by the state to be eligible for immediate assistance. This marks a 13% rise in just the last 5 years.
These issues are visible at a local level, as in Belfast, vagrants not accounted for by statutory homelessness, are no longer confined to the City Centre and more readily seek refuge in the suburbs.
Residents of Ormeau Road have encountered the most notable spike in rough-sleepers as many homeless have chosen the doorways of shops, clubs, and pubs in the increasingly busy area as their lodging for the night. This may be partly due to the substantial economic investment in the area which has seen it move from a primarily working-class area to a popular, vibrant, and more affluent region.
Beyond side streets and facades, a number of rough-sleepers have inhabited Church grounds, using trees as shelter from the elements. Reverend Morris Gault of Cooke Centenary Presbyterian Church has noticed the trend, stating: “We have experienced some homeless people sleeping in our grounds, it’s been going on for quite a while and been particularly bad from the spring of this year. Unfortunately, we’ve had difficulties with drug use and so on. We have been trying to work with police and the Welcome Centre, but some of the guys just don’t want to go into hostels because they say they have had their stuff stolen or been beaten up.”
He and his peers have been very active in offering aid to the homeless, but with mixed results. He said: “We do offer a community lunch on a Thursday and we ask people to come in, but they don’t want to do that. We’ve been giving out hampers of food, but if they don’t have an address or a place to cook the food it’s not much help.”
“We did for a time hand out vouchers but we discovered a Dunnes voucher was being sold for a fiver for drugs.”
The Reverend is aware that sleeping on Church grounds is not a viable long-term solution, and expressed his concerns by communicating: “With the amount of children around our church, with (Girl) Guides and Brownies and other youth organisations, it’s not safe with needles and empty bottles.”
“They have also been defecating in church ground. We have a duty of care to the people using our hall, for their health and safety.”
As many residents push for more considerable intervention from the government in tackling this crisis, it is still very unclear exactly how long homeless figures will grow at these unsustainable rates.