A Belfast mum-of-two who has been on the Housing Executive's waiting list for nine years has revealed she regularly goes without food for up to three days to keep a roof over her children's heads.
The woman (27), who does not wish to be named, says she "drinks lots of water" to cope with hunger during her part-time job in a grocery store. Yesterday, the Belfast Telegraph revealed how almost 1,000 properties owned by the Housing Executive are lying vacant - some for several years - despite the organisation having 37,611 households on its waiting list.
The Housing Executive's 926 vacant properties have remained empty for a combined total of 1,677 years - an average of nearly two years per property.
The single mum told this newspaper that she struggles to make ends meet due to high private sector rents, and fights to hide the reality from her children, aged nine and two.
"The Housing Executive haven't offered me anything in the nine years that I have been on the waiting list," she revealed.
"I'm in temporary accommodation in the private sector, I get very little housing benefit, and with the hours I work in my part-time job I can hardly afford to pay the rent. I regularly skip meals for two or three days so the kids can eat. They don't know how hard things are.
"On the days I can't eat, I drink a lot more water to stop feeling faint. I go into work and I'm surrounded by food, but you get used to it. It's shocking to have to do this today in Northern Ireland. If we got a Housing Executive house the rent wouldn't be as high."
There are 23,694 people in housing stress or priority need and over 16,000 homeless people in Northern Ireland. The average waiting time for a home is around 38 months - just over three years. The Belfast region has 321 properties which have been vacant for 345 years in total. That is despite 12,952 applicants there waiting for a home for an average of just under 39 months.
SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon said that the "fact that we have vacant properties that could be turned into much-needed family homes cannot be ignored".
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson called for action to bring vacant properties "back into the public housing stock, either through housing associations or the Housing Executive".
A Housing Executive spokesperson said the 926 properties without a tenancy at the end of July were "1% of our total stock." She added: "Of those, almost 50% of properties were waiting for a new tenant to move in imminently as the previous tenant's tenancy had terminated. Our lettable voids are at their lowest ever level."
She said the most common reason for a house becoming vacant was the death of a tenant.
Before a new tenancy, each property took on average 15 days to be assessed for services such as gas and electricity and to make repairs, compared to a UK average of 23 days.
The other 50% of houses, known as non-actionable voids, were "generally held vacant for operational reasons", such as accommodating families during major improvement schemes, during the adaptation of homes for disabled people, and pending demolition of properties to make way for new social homes.