Belfast's homeless problem sending wrong image to tourists, says ex-mayor Jim Rodgers
The sight of people sleeping rough in Northern Ireland's main shopping street is presenting a negative image to tourists, a former Belfast Lord Mayor has said.
Jim Rodgers said the problem of the homeless camping out in doorways of well-known stores should be treated sensitively.
His comments came after a London council this week unveiled plans to fine homeless people up to £1,000 for sleeping in doorways near popular tourist spots.
The Belfast Telegraph took pictures of people in sleeping bags on Royal Avenue and Donegall Place last Sunday morning after they had clearly spent the night there.
Mr Rodgers said the pictures underpinned the growing issue of homelessness in Northern Ireland - which is worse than anywhere else in the UK - and described it as "the tragedy of our modern time".
"There is a major homelessness problem in Belfast and Northern Ireland due to the recession," he said.
"We have an increasing amount of cruise ships coming in and tourists visiting the City Hall or shopping are being confronted with people lying in the streets.
"It sends out the wrong message to visitors.
"No matter where you go, late at night or early in the morning, you see people lying in cardboard boxes or with clothing over the top of them. It gives Belfast a bad image."
Mr Rodgers said it wasn't up to the authorities to deal with the problem.
"Belfast City Council isn't responsible for homeless people but we want to play our part and work with other agencies," he said.
"The last thing we want to do is ask the police to move on people who are sleeping rough, but it's becoming a really serious problem in our city, make no mistake about it.
"We need an inter-agency approach here and the city council will not be found wanting."
He added: "Some people look down their noses at these individuals but that's absolutely appalling because anyone could end up in that position."
The UUP man said the provision of the outreach service operated by the Welcome Organisation in conjunction with the crash facility provided by the Salvation Army was of great benefit to people wanting to avoid sleeping rough, but he said more could be done. Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey recently revealed that on any given night it was likely that there will be around 10 people sleeping rough in Belfast, and a similar number across Northern Ireland.
That's a miniscule figure, given that around 19,000 households are now presenting as homeless to the Housing Executive, according to the Council for Homelessness Northern Ireland.
Its director Ricky Rowledge said a three-month street count was under way because homelessness had become "more visible".
"This will not only assess the actual numbers of those on the street over this period, but also if they have accommodation and why they are not accessing the many services available in the city," she said.