Dispelling the myths as we bid to tackle homelessness
We have all witnessed the increased attention homelessness has received in recent months in Northern Ireland. As CEO of Depaul, a charity supporting people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, I have been heartened by the public's interest in the issue in Belfast and the impetus to do something about it.
However, I think it is important to dispel some myths I have heard.
Myth 1: If you have an addiction, you can't access accommodation. There is no doubt that many people who at times sleep rough have complex needs, including mental health issues and addiction. Depaul has a service in Belfast which accommodates 23 men and women who actively drink. There is no prerequisite for them to stop drinking to access the service. There are other services in the city, including a day centre and night-only beds, where people can access support even if under the influence.
Myth 2: People beg on the streets because they are homeless. PSNI statistics show that, of 130 people arrested for begging in Belfast, 100 had residential addresses. The Belfast Street Needs Audit, which Depaul conducted alongside the Welcome Organisation, counted an average of six people sleeping rough in Belfast per night, but observed and assessed a wider visible group engaged in street activity, including street drinking and begging.
Myth 3: By giving money to someone begging you are helping them to access accommodation.
For the most part, homeless accommodation services are not cost-prohibitive. Depaul charges a very low rent, not benchmarked to current sector rates, but the key aim is to encourage life skills and budget management skills.
In many cases homeless people accessing our services have a legitimate source of income through a social welfare payment. There are a range of supports, including a day centre in Belfast, where people can access food, clothing and other support services.
Myth 4: There is not capacity for all the homeless people in Belfast. There are 2,200 temporary bed spaces, a funded street outreach team, a day centre service and floating support programmes aimed at achieving the vision of the Housing Executive's homelessness strategy - to end long-term homelessness and rough sleeping by 2020. However, as highlighted by recent tragedies, people are failing to access the supports.
An action plan is being developed based on the results of the Belfast Street Needs Audit to determine how best to reach these people and I look forward to the implementation of this plan.
Myth 5: People who are homeless with complex needs are incapable of living independently.
Since piloting Housing First in Belfast two years ago, Depaul has successfully accommodated 54 people with acute and complex needs into their own accommodation in the community. Housing First is the principle that it is more effective to house people who are homeless in homes that they can call their own. With wrap-around support services, this option can be offered to people with multifaceted support needs including addiction and mental illness.
Is there more we can we do? Of course. And there has been much discussion at a Government, statutory and voluntary sector level to agree next steps. No one should ever die on our streets and I have reflected on whether we are doing enough. I have been pleased that colleagues have done the same.
If you want to help, please contact Depaul, or another organisation. Homelessness should only ever be a point in time. It should never define a person.
Kerry Anthony is CEO of Depaul