A Belfast homeless charity has been forced to launch a 24-hour outreach programme to help the increasing numbers of rough sleepers in the city this winter.
The Welcome Organisation, whose premises were damaged in a ram-raid incident earlier this month, has teams on the ground working round-the-clock for the first time ever.
It has also put in place a 24-hour helpline to encourage the public to report sightings of people sleeping on the streets of Belfast.
Sandra Moore, chief executive of the Welcome Organisation, told the Belfast Telegraph that the change in operation means the team is working an additional six hours each day.
The charity's two outreach vans - one running 24 hours a day - have been in operation since November 1, and are covering not only the city centre, but now greater Belfast as well.
"Every other year we've done this in cold winter. We've put our teams out at night, but on an ad hoc basis," she explained.
"We want a proper service, and were at risk of missing people, so with the support of the Housing Executive we are extending our outreach."
The chief executive continued: "We had been doing 18 hours and it's about having a service that fits the need of the clients. Beds in the city would be under more pressure at this time and it's good if there's someone on the ground to advocate for people to get a bed."
In recent years there has been a rise in the number of homeless people in Belfast, as well as reports of deaths within the homeless community.
At the start of this year, two men thought to be rough sleepers died within weeks of each other in Belfast city centre.
Ms Moore stressed the organisation is doing all it can to prevent further deaths from happening over the course of this winter season.
"These are people who are more vulnerable than the general public, due to circumstances and lifestyle.
"We would not want to lose anyone on the streets this winter," she said.
The chief executive added that if temperatures severely drop, the charity has an action plan already in place.
"We've brought on a winter staff team to deliver services to cover those additional hours," Ms Moore said.
The Welcome Organisation has had a "very positive" response to its appeal for the public to report any sightings of possible homeless people, she added.
"We're fortunate that Belfast is a caring city. We regularly put out notices to people and get thousands of responses, from other parts of Northern Ireland and the UK.
"Even if anyone sees sleeping bags in alleyways, or in an usual area, report it to us."
She said the Welcome Organisation carried out an annual count to find out know how many people are sleeping rough.
SDLP councillor Paul McCusker yesterday praised the charity for its latest efforts in reaching out to rough sleepers, given that more and more young men and women are presenting themselves as homeless to the authorities.
"We're seeing increasing numbers of people who are a lot younger, from 18 and up to their 60s," he revealed.
"That's a wide range of people who are using homeless services. There is a greater demand for beds; more beds are needed."
He also stressed that a rise in drug use is exacerbating the problem.
"Hostel provision is a challenge. Last week the Welcome Organisation found it a challenge to find beds for some people," Mr McCusker added.
A spokesperson for the Housing Executive said it also provided funding to another homeless organisation in Londonderry.
"This reflects our continued commitment to tackling homelessness in Northern Ireland and follows an overall spend of £36.2m on homelessness in 2018/19," they said.
It provides a range of support services to tackle the issue thanks to funding which enabled 3,354 households to be placed into temporary accommodation during 2018-19.