No home for Christmas: Life on the streets in winter
As the mercury falls to zero Ivan Little takes a walk around the city and discovers what it's like to be homeless
The temperature was plummeting towards zero and the clock was edging towards midnight on the fast-emptying streets of Belfast's city centre as the forlorn-looking woman who was sitting on her own wrapped her blanket just a little more snugly around herself to keep out the biting cold.
High above her, the blue Christmas decorations of Belfast twinkled out their message of festive joy, but for this sad and solitary soul there was little Yuletide cheer as the city's party people scurried past her to their homes without a second glance, presumably to find the warmth that was lacking - literally and figuratively - in Donegall Square West.
Pulling not one but two woollen hats down over her ears, the woman told me her name was Maria, but that was as far as the conversation went because she shrugged that she couldn't speak any more English though she nodded when I held my hands to the side of my head to inquire if she was going to be there for the night.
Suddenly from beneath the blanket, Maria pulled out a paper cup and shook it in the direction of a group of boisterous nightclub-bound girls who ignored her pleas for a few pennies outside the old Northern Bank where almost exactly 11 years ago the IRA had helped themselves to £26.5m.
Maria cut a pathetic figure as she maintained her lonely vigil, but while she may well have been homeless, officials say other people in the city centre are beggars who disappear once the city centre has emptied.
One woman, who'd just been to the pantomime at Belfast's Grand Opera House, told me of her surprise at seeing people arriving with duvets long before the 7pm curtain-up and settling down in nearby streets, though they were gone by the time I went looking for them.
But one man, who has an office in the Bedford Street area, told me that he regularly saw people, including teenage girls, huddled under sleeping bags as he made his way to work in the morning.
Belfast's busiest thoroughfare, Donegall Place is a popular destination for rough sleepers, and earlier this year former Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers said the sight of people lying in the streets was sending out a negative image to tourists.
Although he stressed that the issue needed to be addressed but with sensitivity.
I spoke to one Romanian man who says his name was Julian after he rolled out his sleeping bag in the doorway of a clothes shop on Donegall Place and he assured me that he was homeless.
"It's too cold to sleep but I have nowhere else to go," he added.
Another eastern European man, who wouldn't give me his name, said he was routinely turned away from homeless shelters because he had drink taken. He said there were more homeless people on the streets of Belfast at the weekends "because the town is busier and there's more money about".
And, by Saturday night, the picture in the city centre had changed dramatically. Despite the awful weather conditions, I counted 17 people sitting on the streets on my short walk from Bedford Street to Royal Avenue.
The majority of them were begging for money and most of them had disappeared by the time I walked back to my car several hours later.
One homelessness official said: "There is undoubtedly a growing problem with begging in Belfast and I know the Housing Executive and Belfast City Council are trying to address it."
A community group called Amethyst Outreach, who go out in the city centre at nights with food, clothes and advice for rough sleepers, have launched a petition urging Belfast City Council to follow the lead of Manchester and open up empty buildings in winter for the homeless.
At the last count, 15,246 people had signed the petition and organisers said the council had indicated that they would discuss their idea. Officials who are working with the homeless in Northern Ireland have insisted that people who sleep rough on the street are not representative of the real crisis here.
Jim Dennison, who is chief executive of Simon Community NI organisation, says the truth about homelessness is that for most of the time it's invisible. He says homelessness could happen to anyone and he reveals that one elderly woman his organisation had assisted in mid-Ulster didn't sleep on the streets or in a friend's house, but rather in her car.
The Simon Community are one of no fewer than 90 groups, mostly in the community and voluntary sector, who are represented by the umbrella group, the Council for the Homeless NI.
Ricky Rowledge, who is their CEO, says the problem of homelessness here is grave and has been for the past three or four years.
"We are talking about 20,000 people who present themselves as homeless to the Housing Executive every year and over half of them would meet the requirements for the Executive to provide them with emergency and permanent accommodation," she says.
But she says rough sleepers are only a tiny fraction of the homeless population. "We can say categorically that the rough sleepers who are entrenched in the city of Belfast, which would have the biggest problem in Northern Ireland, number less than 10."
Ricky Rowledge says she believes that the Stormont Executive and the relevant housing authorities are taking the issue seriously.
But she says one of the major difficulties facing organisations trying to tackle the crisis of homelessness is the scarcity of the right affordable accommodation.
A number of younger people who have no home are classed as "sofa-surfers", who rely on friends to put them up which can tax even the closest relationships as will other homeless family members who move from one relative to another.
A number of shelters offer beds to the homeless in Belfast.
The Welcome Organisation's facilities on the Falls Road are open every day and every night of the year.
One official from a voluntary organisation said it was impossible to stereotype the homeless, adds: "A lot of people think all homeless people are drug addicts and criminals; they don't understand that they can be just like themselves only they've fallen on hard times.
"And it can be difficult for the homeless to get jobs because of the preconceptions."
The Welcome Organisation cite the story of one man in his 50s who ended up with them after his businesses went bust.
He was sleeping rough when he was approached by a Welcome outreach team who helped him pull himself together, allowing him to find work, but only after he'd applied for 70 jobs.
His story is not uncommon, according to Ricky Rowledge who says: "Homeless is very much about ordinary people who perhaps have jobs and who may go through a divorce and find that they can't keep their house. It's a very unpleasant circumstance to be in but there is support out there for them."
The Salvation Army is another organisation offering help. They provide 68 direct access homeless beds for single men and 12 emergency bed spaces every night in Centenary House in Belfast and they have an input into another facility, Calder Fountain run in partnership with Helm Housing. For their part, the Housing Executive says their vision is to eliminate long-term homelessness and rough sleeping by 2020.
They say that, in response to what they called growing concerns about rough sleeping, they recently carried out one of the most comprehensive street audits in the UK to determine its extent here.
A statement says: "The findings are currently being examined and once all stakeholders have been consulted and agreement on the way forward is agreed the details will be released.
"However, it has been our experience that the numbers of 'rough sleepers' on average on the streets of Belfast on any given night is in single figures."
The Executive says they provide outreach services and day centres in Belfast and Londonderry; 20 "crash" beds and a night-time reception service in Belfast and 880 places of temporary accommodation for all types of households in Belfast, equating to over 2,500 beds. They also say they are introducing what's known as a "wet" hostel for up to 22 alcohol dependents.
In Dublin earlier this month, hundreds of people went on the march to demand that the Irish government take urgent action on the housing and homelessness crisis in the city.
It was held on the first anniversary of the death from hypothermia of homeless man Jonathan Currie whose body was found in a doorway just yards away from Leinster House, the home of the Republic's parliament. The Welcome Organisation here says that at least five people who used their services had died in the first five months of last year due to mental and physical illnesses.
The life expectancy of a homeless person, they added, was around 47 years.