Enough is enough, says St Anne's vicar as he demands urgent help for homeless
The Dean's Vicar of St Anne's Cathedral has called on civic leaders to come up with a credible plan to solve the problem of Belfast's rough sleepers.
The 112-year-old place of worship in Donegall Street - a must-see venue for visitors and tourists - is regularly used as a place of shelter, and city fathers are worried that the sight of people bedding down in the porch of the west doors is sending out a negative image.
However, Rev Mark Niblock told this newspaper that despite cathedral staff's concerns over hygiene and aggression issues, removing rough sleepers from the premises would do little to ease the problem.
A recent survey revealed that the number of people using Belfast centre doorways for overnight shelter had passed 40. Over the past year, five died on the city's streets.
"You hear stories about people sleeping rough, but it brings it home when it is literally on your doorstep," said Rev Niblock, who was appointed Dean's Vicar of St Anne's in May.
"We used to have barriers up at the cathedral to prevent rough sleepers from coming in, but now we feel that we provide some sort of a shelter for them, and we didn't want to be pushing them on from us. That doesn't solve the problem.
"They're going to have to sleep somewhere. But fundamentally there's something wrong in society when this is happening."
Rev Niblock admitted that it could be difficult to balance "human compassion and understanding of the particular plight of individuals with the implications of what that involves" - such as litter and hygiene issues - "when the precincts of the cathedral are used as a toilet".
He added: "There have also been incidents in which staff and volunteers have been made to feel uncomfortable with verbal or physical aggression."
And he spoke of "a frustration" that the situation has not improved.
"There's a day-to-day operational thing, but at the bottom of it there's a human problem," Rev Niblock added. "We feel a certain amount of helplessness. There's a moral challenge, but there can be challenging behaviours as well."
Despite his fears, he said now was the time to act before the colder weather sets in. "We must avoid a recurrence of the recent deaths, which were scandalous," Rev Niblock explained. "We're coming into the autumn-winter period when we risk potentially the same statistics if not more."
Belfast High Sheriff Jim Rodgers said the situation was "disturbing". "Thousands of visitors and tourists come into Belfast every week and this sends out the wrong message," he added.
"It shouldn't be happening at St Anne's Cathedral, which is a massive tourist attraction, or in shop doorways. Having said that, my heart goes out to the poor, unfortunate people who are lying there, night after night. There is a challenge for all of us in society to bring this business to an end. I don't want to see anyone else dying."
Belfast city centre manager Andrew Irvine said he had recently contacted the Lord Mayor to ask for an update on the problem of rough sleepers.
"There are beds available for everyone who is sleeping rough, but there are people still not availing of them and sleeping in the street instead," he added.
"There are roughly 40 individuals. That is a low number for a city the size of Belfast, but I would like to see it drop."