Belfast Telegraph

There's not much Christmas cheer for our homeless

By Lindy McDowell

Christmas 2011 and never mind no room at the inn - this year they've even boarded up trade union HQ to keep out the homeless.

In the last week or so High Street's iconic tiled oddity, Transport House, has been reinforced on all sides to deter street people from seeking shelter in its doorways and interior. Wooden hoarding now covers the building's entrance and lower windows.

It is not, in any sense, a good look.

Not least given that trade unions are the self-proclaimed champions of the poor and downtrodden. How has it come to it that their one-time headquarters - now lying empty - can't throw its doors open to the masses?

I don't always have kind things to say about trade union bosses but in fairness, in this instance, it doesn't seem like they had a whole lot of options.

It comes down to the predictable and pedantic - they had to secure the building for insurance reasons.

Most of us faced with homeless people seeking a bit of shelter and an empty building might see it as a fairly straight forward case of problem and solution. But insurers don't think like that.

The rest of us may rail against a thought process that is more fixated on saving costs than saving lives. But that is the way of the world these days. The trade union bosses are not to blame for this one.

And anyway, one boarded-up Transport House is not the cause of Belfast's current homeless problem. Any more than an opened-up Transport House is likely to be an answer to it.

Sadly it's bigger than that. Local charities have produced statistics to show how the recession is making the crisis worse. But you can see the evidence for yourself in any town or city centre.

I almost tripped over a man at the banklink machine the other day. My first impression was that he was just a harassed shopper who'd had enough and had plonked himself down on the freezing pavement for a bit of a breather.

He was casually dressed but clean and tidy. He was middle-aged - 40s or 50s, I'd guess. He had a carton of coffee, like an office worker on a break, and something in a paper bag (donated by a caring passer-by?)

His eyes were locked on the pavement. It was only when I saw the cap laid out for coins that I copped.

When he was given a few coins he looked up. He looked, quite frankly, desperate - both in the local and the literal sense.

Who was he; how had this happened to him?

This paper recently ran a feature about a local auction selling shops and businesses which have floundered due to the recession. And the line in the article that struck me most was the one about how behind each sale lot there was the human story.

That applies - surely even more - to those auction pics you sometimes see of houses that have been repossessed.

What happens - what has happened - to the people for whom those houses were home?

The majority we assume, muddle through. But there is a dangerously thin safety net that shields people from being on the streets. And some inevitably fall through it.

The unions I believe, have taken unfair flak over the decision to secure their building. But they could maybe turn this spotlight in which they've found themselves into something positive by using it to spearhead a new drive to find practical ways to tackle the crisis.

Most of us care. At this time of the year, and in this weather it's little wonder that we worry about our fellow citizens without a roof over their heads. But this needs to be more than a seasonal stab of conscience. Homelessness itself isn't just for Christmas.

Boarded-up, old Transport House is just the latest symbol of the growing extent of a problem that is year-round. And long-term.

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