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Homeless deaths shame Northern Ireland

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 26/02/2016

How often do we see a figure huddled in a shop doorway wearing layers of ill-matched clothes and simply walk on by or, at best, drop a few coins into their cap or cup to salve our conscience? Picture posed by model
How often do we see a figure huddled in a shop doorway wearing layers of ill-matched clothes and simply walk on by or, at best, drop a few coins into their cap or cup to salve our conscience? Picture posed by model

How often do we see a figure huddled in a shop doorway wearing layers of ill-matched clothes and simply walk on by or, at best, drop a few coins into their cap or cup to salve our conscience? If we are honest with ourselves, that is what most of us do every time we encounter one of Belfast's homeless people.

Yet, once they were just like us. No child is born without a roof over its head and no child grows up with the intention of living rough. Yet for some - and it does seem they are becoming more visible on the streets of our capital city - that will be their fate.

Addiction, break-up of relationships or families and unemployment are just some of the factors which can see them end up living in such a dreadful manner.

It has taken the deaths of four of these people in recent weeks to awaken the public to their plight. These are homeless people, but not necessarily roofless, because three of those who passed away had places in hostels but chose not to use them. It is believed they died not because of the current freezing conditions, but because of a lifestyle allied to - and perhaps contributing to - underlying health problems, both physical and mental.

The irony is that there has never been more help directed towards them. There are a number of voluntary groups doing sterling work in touring the streets and doling out food and clothing, but as an emergency meeting called by the Lord Mayor heard, this work, done with the best of good intentions, may actually be sustaining the unhealthy lifestyle associated with sleeping rough. It is evident that there needs to be greater co-ordination of the work of homelessness groups, and between them and the statutory agencies involved.

On the immediate practical side, are there enough beds in hostels to accommodate everyone?

And are the rules of those hostels sufficiently flexible, while remaining robust, to ensure everyone feels welcome?

A more difficult hurdle is creating services to deal with the root problems which cause people to take to the streets.

There seems no question that mental health and addiction services are inadequate for the province-wide demand, yet there are so many competing demands on the health budget.

What is undeniable is that the public is horrified that four homeless men, for whatever reasons, have died on the streets of Belfast. That is a stain on all our consciences.

Belfast Telegraph

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