Belfast Telegraph

Belfast councillor defends removal of benches used by homeless

A Belfast councillor has defended the removal of benches which were used by homeless people in a park in the centre of the city

UUP councillor Jim Rodgers said there had been a high number of complaints and criminality in the area for some time and the council had to "show leadership" and act in the interests of health and safety.

In the past week the wooden slats of the benches in Jubilee Square at the junction of High Street and Victoria Street were removed as part of a drive to improve the area and attract people to the location. The concrete supports remain.

The move was criticised with some accusing the council of just trying to move the homeless issue to another part of the city and away from the glare of tourists. The Green Party described the move as "reprehensible" saying there needed to be a strategy on tackling homeless.

The Welcome Organisation which looks after the homeless, however, said the city had got on top of the rough sleepers issue and in the past weekend there was three people sleeping rough in Belfast and they had refused help.

Former Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers said the council was acting responsibly and there was organisations working to help those sleeping rough around the city.

He told the BBC Stephen Nolan show: "It is not a matter of pushing people out of the city - you can't have people sleeping rough in every shop doorway across the city.

"My heart goes out to them. I will argue and fight for these people to get accomodation. If I can be a voice for people I will, I want to help."

Councillor Rodgers said there had been fights, drug taking, needles discarded in the park as well as people sleeping rough during the days and nights and using it as a toilet.

"That square used to be absolutely beautiful," he added.

"I regret what we have done, it is most unfortunate but we had to draw the line somewhere.

"Over the last number of months the vandalism and amount of complaints from the hotel, those going about their business and the general public has been unbelieveable.

"It has been a source of annoyance for some time.

"There has also been new business in the area with a new hotel and it's close to the Cathedral Quarter. For us just to sit back as elected members and as a council we could not sit back in interests of health and safety and wider community."

Mr Rodgers said he did not want the issue to be exaggerated and rejected a claim the council was only acting after complaints from a "swanky new hotel".

"From the bottom of my heart I am really concerned with people that sleep rough and I work hard to resolve this issue but it is a small number and they refuse help either because they have mental health problems or they are just stubborn.

"My heart goes out to them especially at this festive time of year, the season of good will. We considered this, we don't just go ram stam into things.

"When we talked to homeless organisations they say they can accommodate 95/96% of homeless. People in Jubilee Square have been there for years and they don't want help.

"What are we to do? Are we just to allow our beautiful city to go to rack and ruin by a small number of people? We have to consider the community and those that live in Belfast and beyond."

Sinn Fein called on the council to reinstate the benches and that those responsible for the decision "should be ashamed".

“It is particularly harrowing to hear that the council removed these benches in the City Centre at this time of year and in the middle of the extremely cold weather we have been experiencing," said councillor Jim McVeigh said

“This did not go through any Committee and Belfast City Council needs to review and reverse its decision and work to provide support at all times to anyone homeless in this city.

“Sinn Fein works with homeless groups such as the Belfast Welcome Centre and though there have been advances in providing shelter for homeless people in this city, while there is anyone homeless that is too many.”

Belfast City Council has been asked for a response.

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