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We must act and act now to tackle the homelessness blighting Belfast

By Gail Walker

Published 05/01/2016

A few days into 2016 seems a good time to reflect that the abiding image of Belfast 2015 is likely to be this: our main shopping throughfares resembling something out of a Dickens novel. Picture posed
A few days into 2016 seems a good time to reflect that the abiding image of Belfast 2015 is likely to be this: our main shopping throughfares resembling something out of a Dickens novel. Picture posed

A few days into 2016 seems a good time to reflect that the abiding image of Belfast 2015 is likely to be this: our main shopping throughfares resembling something out of a Dickens novel.

Beggars — pitiable or aggressive, friendly or incoherent — imploring you to give them money for a hostel, a cup of tea, a bite to eat.

Young, apparently homeless, men and women wrapped in sheets of plastic and tattered duvets, lying in shop doorways, polystyrene coffee cups at their side awaiting the loose change of passers-by, with a mixture of hopelessness, apathy and sometimes a kind of street cunning.

Great Victoria Street. Fountain Street. Botanic Avenue. Rosemary Street. Royal Avenue. These should be some of Belfast’s brightest spots. Now, they are sources of worry, embarrassment and shame.

It’s probably true to say that, in the offices and eateries, few are concerned about the political manoeuvrings up on the hill.

But they are certainly confronted, minute by minute, by sights they never thought they would see here in their home city. London, maybe. Dublin, up to a point. But not here.

Everyone is asking a simple question: what is happening to this city?

And no one seems to have an answer.

But that doesn’t mean we are short of analyses nor in finding others to blame. Log on and tune out. Those of a conservative bent will rant about initiative, the nanny state and hint darkly of Fagin-like organised gangs knocking off at eight to retire via a hefty 4x4 to their (taxpayer-supported) residences.

In retort, those of liberal sympathies will complain of government heartlessness and of societal failure on a massive scale and refuse to acknowledge that maybe individuals should take some responsibility for themselves.

The Left accuse the Right of being hard-hearted “realists” and the Right will accuse the Left of being woolly-headed “idealists”.

And having vented their spleen, they will log off and walk out of their back bedrooms, content to have lambasted the enemy.

There is certainly an absence of conversation about the issue; maybe even a lack of agreement as to what the issue is. Is it homelessness, migration, alcoholism, family breakdown, exploitation?

There is also confusion over the status of many of the beggars on the streets — homelessness charities indicate that many begging are not in fact “without a home”. That’s not to say they aren’t deserving — just that they aren’t homeless.

Maybe begging is an occupation now. Maybe it’s a demented Rightist fantasy, but can earnings from begging be taxed? A friend has been giving money for more than a decade to a migrant in the city centre, in latter years in the guise of a Big Issue seller. That’s more than 10 years of begging, or whatever it is called. It’s longer than many people are in jobs here.

My friend recovered from a serious illness to find the beggar still reliably manning their usual city centre station and mused wryly that, while he had narrowly escaped the grave, the sturdy migrant was still fit and at their post.

While we obsess about the risk of old-style Troubles issues in the city — flags, sectarianism, no-go areas, paramilitary drugs — the cityscape is already a nightmarish dystopian future. It may sound melodramatic, but Belfast is being enveloped in a fog of menace, of failure and of hopelessness.

We seem paralysed, unable to act, or even to begin formulating a solution — however temporary.

Our inability to act seems profoundly shocking. If this continues we will be inured to the begging and destitution.

Soon, if we’re not really already at this point, it will become a normal facet of life here.

Be honest — how does that play with the cosy PR of Belfast being a thriving, modern city, increasingly at peace with itself?

What will all those brightly clad American and Scandinavian tourists think of our capital city when they have to buy their Titanic bottle openers and White Star Line mugs while stepping over people huddled in doorways and fed in soup kitchens?

What do retailers make of this problem literally on their doorsteps? What do our civic leaders — so keen to blether freely about so much — have to say about this?

Maybe things are happening in the background. But if they are, they are certainly discreet. Just as Belfast has a traffic congestion problem which is more like Los Angeles than what is in fact a small European town, so we have developed an outdoor urban population more appropriate to towns and cities twice or three times our size.

Why is that? And why has it only developed over the last decade? It’s no answer to “blame the Tories” on this one.

There should, at the very least, be a general conversation about the issue of street life in Northern Ireland. Let’s have it now, this year, and let’s not leave it to charities to pick up the pieces, or even to local councils.

It would be a good start if we could identify just what the problem actually is in the first place.

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