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Communities Minister seeks urgent meeting with colleagues over homelessness problem


The Communities Minister has requested an urgent meeting to consider immediate steps to take in response to homelessness (Picture Colm O'Reilly).

The Communities Minister has requested an urgent meeting to consider immediate steps to take in response to homelessness (Picture Colm O'Reilly).

The Communities Minister has requested an urgent meeting to consider immediate steps to take in response to homelessness (Picture Colm O'Reilly).

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has requested a meeting with the Department of Justice and Health Department to discuss "immediate" steps to tackle our homelessness problem.

It comes following the deaths of 14 homeless and vulnerable people in Belfast over recent months.

A protest was held to demand action over the issue at the weekend. Crowds, including some of the bereaved families, set off from a north Belfast soup kitchen to City Hall in response to the deaths.

Of the 14 fatalities, nine were found on the street, while the rest died in homeless accommodation.

Last Friday, Belfast lord mayor Tina Black held a meeting with the council’s party group leaders and statutory agencies to discuss the situation.

Changes to legislation around homelessness have been mooted for some time and Ms Hargey was recently asked about its progress.

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She said: "All options to improve homelessness legislation are under consideration. Given the pressure that homelessness services are currently under, and in the absence of a functioning Executive and budget, I have written to the Minister for Health and Minister for Justice requesting an urgent meeting to consider immediate steps that can be taken."

Ulster Unionist communities spokesperson Andy Allen branded homelessness a "scourge on our society" that has, largely due to a lack of coordination from government and statutory agencies, become much worse in the last decade.

"The excellent work that continues to be delivered by a range of voluntary and community organisations barely scratches the surface. It is obvious that, without a concerted effort to create a truly cross-departmental strategy, the issue of homelessness and particularly street sleeping, will only worsen," he said.

"It is incumbent on every minister to actively task their department to work across government, the third and private sectors, to identify and deliver solutions. However, to be able to make a real difference, we need an Executive that can agree and allocate budgets, alongside a robust programme for government.

"The Department and Minister for Communities must take a much more proactive approach including a complete review of how we deliver homelessness provision, as the current model of delivery isn’t working, and in turn, is failing thousands."

Northern Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis, with demand far outstripping supply. 

To help combat this, at the end of last year Ms Hargey published a draft housing supply strategy, which aims to build 100,000 new homes over 15 years. Ms Hargey said she wants at least a third of these properties to be social housing.

“Transforming housing supply will require a collective response from the Executive and real collaboration. It must major on engaging with those people who are in housing need. This approach is built on the principle that those who are most affected by poor housing are best placed to help design or redesign it," she said at the time.

Currently, there are more than 44,000 households on the Housing Executive's waiting list, with many in temporary accommodation such as hostels.

From 2013 to 2018, Stormont ran an 'Empty Homes Strategy', which was aimed at bringing vacant homes back into use to help tackle the housing waiting list.

However, given the number of empty homes has remained largely stagnant and the waiting list is climbing year on year, it seems to have had little effect.

People before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said the growing problem “sits in a context of hardship and lack of hope among many of our most vulnerable citizens”.

"Political representatives must show leadership and that means urgent action to prevent further heartache on our streets. During the pandemic, people were taken off the streets and given accommodation. For a brief period, we saw what swift action can do, when taken. Instead of building on this action the powers that be have reverted to presiding over a homelessness crisis, refusing to invest adequately in building public housing or providing necessary emergency provision for those on the streets, including addiction services.

"We need an urgent multi-agency approach to get people off the streets, into accommodation, and able to deal with addiction in a safe manner. These efforts should be led by the Minister for Communities. The lack of a functioning Executive is no excuse for inaction when lives are quite literally on the line.”

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