Home truths from a street
Great Victoria Street is postcard Belfast on Friday afternoon with its snow-coated streets and flickering Christmas lights. The view from the inside of a sleeping bag, however, is much less dreamy.
Passers by battling the conditions represent not just another Christmas shopper, but someone who maybe — just maybe — will drop a few pence into your out-stretched hand to get you a novelty cup of tea.
Or more worryingly, to go towards a bottle of something or other to warm your insides as the bitter cold snap continues its assault on your body.
John Goddard is standing outside a shop repeating the words “change for the homeless” when I stop to chat.
Most people put their heads down and walk on, others shake their head sympathetically as if to say, ‘Sorry, I’d love to help, but...’.
John is busy thanking them for the time anyway and seems to be looking after a nearby friend with a strong Dublin accent, who looks a pitiful sight peering out of his sleeping bag.
One woman appears so concerned she leans into him and offers some moral support.
He doesn’t wish to speak to us.
But, John breaks his shift of ‘begging’ to speak to us in exchange for a “few quid”.
He tells me over a decade ago he was a successful painter and decorator in the Shankill Road area; today he stands unashamedly (on the outside at least) asking office workers and festive shoppers for spare change.
“I’ve been on the streets 10 years,” says the 38-year-old.
“That’s when I’m not in prison.”
It would be easy to walk away and put John down as another criminal not worth wasting your time on.
But life on the streets is no picnic; it’s a world of alcohol, drugs and watching your back at every turn.
And for each of the reported 10 or so who are said to sleep rough on the streets of this city night after night, the aforesaid problems seep further into their lives with every minute, hour and day that passes.
“I was put out by loyalist paramilitaries,” says John.
“I came into town. I lost a lot you know — lost my family, my girlfriend...I’m running about homeless. Last night a friend was good enough to let me stay.
“I’m 24/7 on the streets, if I’m not in prison.
“They are stupid, Mickey Mouse charges though; assaults and that sort of thing.
“It’s really bad, especially for people like him (he points to his friend from Dublin in the sleeping bag). They are getting mugged 24/7.”
I can’t help but wonder if John has played the role of defender among the more vulnerable within this tight-knit homeless community — they tend to look out for one another, as one taxi driver in Amelia Street said.
I remark how cold it is today and ask how people like him survive?
“Cups of tea here and there. Sandwiches here and there. But, yeah, when it gets cold, it gets cold. I stay the night in night shelters or squats in the Holylands.
“It’s really bad,” he repeats, as if to emphasise the point.
“You run about...you drink anything just to keep yourself warm. I walk the streets all night just to keep warm.”
It’s truly amazing to think that a fellow citizen has to walk laps of his native city for heat.
But, Jim Murray of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive — the body responsible for housing people on the streets and whose building John is standing outside — says it doesn’t have to be this way at all.
“In Belfast no one needs to sleep rough as there is emergency temporary accommodation available,” he claims.
“The Housing Executive funds a street outreach service in both Belfast and Derry/Londonderry.
“Rough sleeping in Derry/Londonderry has been largely addressed and the main problem in the city is an acute one of street drinking.
“It is also important to note that those who do sleep rough are not always necessarily homeless.”
Jim is alluding to the fact that when it comes to homelessness, not all is as clear as it seems. He’s right too.
People who present themselves as ‘homeless’ aren’t all on the streets like John Goddard. They can be people on housing lists and/or living in hostels, with family members or friends.
But that doesn’t make the statistics any less startling. Between April and September this year, 421 people in east Belfast presented themselves as homeless, with just 47% being ‘awarded’ a home.
In north Belfast, 287 presented with 46% awarded.
In south Belfast, 498 presented with 57% awarded.
In Bangor, 433 presented with 50% awarded.
In other words, of all the people throwing themselves in front of authorities pleading to be housed, only around half get what they want.
That leaves half of those people facing very uncertain futures.
It’s not a pleasant thought; but the streets remain a possibility for those people. And at Christmas, the streets are not the most pleasant of places as John, back on Great Victoria Street, explains: “I don’t know what I’ll be doing for Christmas; probably what I’m doing now.
“I’m just trying to get money together to pay a fine...I’d like to get a home, I’ve got the top points,” he says, referring to the system that works to get people like him housed.
“People are on the street because they are homeless and have no money and are trying to get a few quid.
“There are welcome centres — there is one on the Falls for example. But they don’t do anyone any good. They offer a sandwich and a cup of tea, but the reality is people just want to get the money for alcohol.”
This is the second time John has mentioned drink and with the words of the Housing Executive (“the main problem in the city is an acute one of street drinking”) still ringing in my ears, I ask John if drink is a problem for him personally?
“I’m a chronic alcoholic,” he says without hesitation.
“The alcohol keeps you warm.”
On a day like today, where I'm returning to a warm office, who am I to dispute this?
I hand John a few quid, which I’m absolutely certain he will spend on alcohol. But alcoholism, as we are often told, is an illness, where sufferers are at the mercy of the bottle. But, surely this is merely a side point to the fact that these people are homeless this Christmas, shivering on the streets, asking people for their hard-earned money?
Luckily, there are places like the Simon Community, who provide refuge for many homeless people across the country.
A spokesperson told us: “Simon Community Northern Ireland strengthens communities by addressing homelessness through delivering accommodation and a variety of services.
“We are running a variety of Christmas collections and fundraising initiatives. StreetSmart is just one of these.
“The scheme allows Christmas diners to donate a small amount of cash when paying their bill. It will help us continue to provide the invaluable services we offer. Click ww.simoncommunity.org or find Simon Community Northern Ireland on Facebook for a range of fundraising initiatives, to donate or for more information on the services we offer.”
Words that, positive and all that they are, provide little comfort to the likes of John and the others who just don’t know where they’ll sleep tonight. Or indeed if they’ll wake up in the morning.