Belfast Telegraph

Belfast 'slumber' bed shows we must think outside box on homeless issue

By Lindy McDowell

Even using the most elastic estate agent speak, it could hardly be described as deceptively spacious. But it is reasonably well-appointed, with charging points for phone and radio. Eco-friendly, too, with its solar panel. Overall, it is compact and well-maintained, with good use of interior space. And it even has a certain kerb appeal with its heavy-duty plywood exterior, finished and varnished with water-based paints.

But now that Belfast City Council has confiscated the street sleep coffin, is the project dead and buried?

This ingenious wooden pod, designed to offer shelter to homeless people at night and, by day, a bench for all to sit upon, was provided by a local group as a "social experiment". From photographs, it looks a bit like a chest freezer with a hole in the side.

It has, however, now been scooped by the council on grounds of, yes, you've guessed it, health and safety.

According to council nit-pickers: "The pod was placed close to a busy thoroughfare and, while well-constructed, is made of wood, which raised concerns about combustible material and the potential for being set alight, it was not fixed in position and had a number of finger traps, which could cause injury to users, inquisitive passers-by, or people moving the unit".

My favourite line is that bit about "a number of finger traps, which could cause injury to users, inquisitive passers-by, or people moving the unit." Note to inquisitive passers-by - keep your inquisitive fingers to yourself and they won't get trapped.

In fairness to the council, and I do try to be fair, even to municipal bodies, their lifting of the sleep coffin may spring from fears about the possibility of being sued by one of those inquisitive passers-by. Or, indeed, users.

We are all too aware of citizens who would regard a trapped finger as an excuse to get the arm in.

The first time I saw a picture of the thing myself, that question did cross my mind about what happens if it's set alight? I suppose the answer to that is that, from the potential user's point of view, there are other more likely hazards to contend with out there on an evening. Like the killer freezing temperatures from which the pod might provide some small respite.

Give peace a chance, read a sign on the exterior. Give the initiative a chance, I say.

The group Common Law NI, which left the pod down near St George's Church in High Street, rebut the council's safety concerns by pointing out that it was situated back from a road where traffic moved slowly anyway, it would be very difficult to set alight without an accelerant and it takes four people to lift the thing, so the chances of it blowing away, or toppling over, are pretty remote.

(That does still leave the ever-present danger of finger-trapping though. And, presumably, you could hit your shins off it if you were cornering without due care and attention.)

Gone it may be (for the time being anyway), but the people who put it there can at least take some comfort from the fact that their "social experiment" has helped highlight once again how, in 2015, on these bitter January nights, people still lie huddled in shop doorways and sleeping on our streets.

However, while it would be easy to condemn the city council as the heartless ogre for scuppering a genius idea, it is not quite that simple. They, too, have a job to do. And they do make clear they want to sit down and talk with the group behind the "experiment".

It's certainly worth having a look at. For those on the street, the pod has to be better than a shop doorway or park bench.

But, as its makers would surely agree, it is an interim answer - not a real solution to a complex and enduring problem.

Ingenious as it is, well-intentioned and kindly as its creators undoubtedly are, surely as a society we can do better for the homeless than settle for supplying them with sleep coffins to kip in, out there, night after night, in the freezing cold?

TV political debate looks Pointless now

Far be it for me to speak up for local politicians. But, yes, since everybody else at Westminster is being invited to the televised pre-election debate, our lot have a right to be there, too.

Which means that, come kick-off, there could be no fewer than 11 podiums in the one TV studio. A right team.

And why stop there? Surely there’s room for a few more important political voices? Russell Brand? Vivienne Westwood? Jim Davidson? Bono?

Having given them all a chance to speak, they could then do a few knockout rounds to narrow it down to the final pair.

You know. Like that television quiz. Pointless.

Clergyman doth protest too much!

There was a moment of high drama during the consecration service for the Church of England’s first woman bishop, the Reverend Libby Lane.

A protesting vicar cried out: “No! Not in the Bible!” Safe to say, not the Vicar of Dibley, then.

The protesting priest turns out to be the Rev Paul Williamson, who is described as an “ultra-conservative” and presumably thinks a woman’s place is back in the church hall seeing to the tray bakes.

What does the Bible have to say on the matter of female contribution to the Church?

Surely something a bit more substantial Your Reverence, than, “More tea, Vicar?”

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