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Selfless youths rough it on streets to raise awareness of homelessness crisis in Belfast

By Allan Preston

Published 01/04/2016

Marcus Wood and Ryan McCallan sleeping on street
Marcus Wood and Ryan McCallan sleeping on street
Marcus Wood struggled to get through the day after sleeping rough
Marcus Wood
Ryan McCallan
Paul McCusker
Catherine Kenny

Youths touched by the deaths of five homeless people in Belfast this year have been sleeping on the streets to raise awareness.

The group of 24 launched their project on Tuesday, and on Wednesday night staged a mass sleepout.

On Tuesday participants had to find a friend's sofa to sleep on, while 24 hours later they had to spend a night on the streets.

Ryan McCallan (21), from north Belfast, and Marcus Wood (18), from the Shankill, spent Wednesday on Royal Avenue.

They said they got less than a few hours' sleep between them, and told how it could be a frightening experience.

"You're constantly paranoid," said Ryan. "You're thinking: 'If I fall asleep, what's going to happen? Will I wake up with my stuff stolen?' You're in the unknown.

"There's a lot of drunk people at that time of night. There's people coming out of McDonald's fighting each other, it's just mad.

"The way I look at it is: can you imagine a group of people in your bedroom fighting while you're trying to get to sleep? Your alarm clock is people starting work, so it's very embarrassing."

Marcus told how he struggled to get through the day after just 45 minutes' sleep.

"I feel emotionally and physically drained," he said. "I just want to go to sleep and get washed."

Having volunteered for homeless outreach work for two-and-a-half years, Marcus got to know a number of homeless people in the city. Among them was 32-year-old Catherine Kenny, who was found dead last month in a shop doorway on Royal Avenue.

"I think that Catherine had a big effect on everybody," Marcus said. "I think that the person Catherine was, everybody had everything before her.

"If someone needed money or food, she made sure they had it before she did. She was just a lovely person. She had the whole world on her shoulders, but unfortunately lived a homeless life and passed away."

Ryan and Marcus said despite their discomfort they were encouraged by ordinary people stopping to help them.

"A lot of people were being nice, offering us food and showing support," said Ryan. "We got more nice people last night than not."

Marcus added: "There were police and security guards everywhere, and two girls stopped and asked us if we needed money or food, so that was really nice."

The sofa and street challenge was initiated by the young people themselves as part of a pilot programme for Springboard Opportunities United Youth.

The United Youth programme works with 18 to 24-year-olds from disadvantaged parts of Belfast.

Paul McCusker from the outreach group Homeless Aware praised those taking part.

"They're definitely getting a real flavour of what it's like to be homeless and they've been remarkable," he said. "Their determination... nothing can stop them.

"The more awareness and support that we can get for people on the streets, hostels and hidden homeless on sofas, the better."

Michaela Rafferty, project leader for Springboard Opportunities, said the young people taking part had been inspired by the struggles their own friends were going through.

"They actually saw some of their classmates in Springboard experiencing homelessness, sleeping on people's sofas and then having to come into training at 10 o'clock the next day," she added.

"For Ryan and Marcus, who haven't experienced that, they wanted to see what it's like to go through all the challenges of being homeless and still have to deal with your daily life."

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