Belfast Telegraph

'Drug death' of homeless man raises serious questions for charity: Allister

Police at the scene of a man’s death in Ballymena
Police at the scene of a man’s death in Ballymena
Brett Campbell

By Brett Campbell

The death of a homeless man in Co Antrim raises serious questions for a leading charity, an Assembly member has claimed.

It is understood a resident of the Simon Community's Mill House hostel in Ballymena was found dead inside the property on Sunday morning after a suspected drugs overdose.

Ambulance crews responded to a 999 call made at 6.20am but paramedics were unable to resuscitate the victim, who died at the scene.

It is understood the incident was preceded by a knife attack outside the shelter on the Harryville Bridge, which was closed off yesterday afternoon while a police search and rescue operation was carried out.

Officers recovered a knife from the River Braid next to the homeless facility on Henry Street.

The PSNI has refused to comment on the circumstances surrounding the "sudden death" until a post-mortem examination has been carried out.

Last night, the PSNI said officers investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of the man in Ballymena had made an arrest.

The 27-year-old was arrested on suspicion of robbery and assault.

Local residents expressed anger following the incident.

"I woke up and saw forensic officers everywhere but sadly I wasn't surprised," one man said.

"The police are never away from there - I saw them carry a body out not that long ago."

Another resident described the hostel as a "bail house" and complained of drug paraphernalia being left along the river and in local parks.

A PSNI spokesman sought to reassure residents that officers "are working closely with statutory bodies and partner agencies to tackle these concerns".

However, TUV leader Jim Allister said the "apparently drugs related death" raises serious questions about how the shelter is being managed.

"The ease with which residents in the hostel appear able to acquire and use drugs causes me to question how it is being run and whether staffing levels are adequate," he said.

"A not unrelated issue, I believe, is the fact that in many instances it is being used as a bail hostel, when such should not be its function."

In July 2015 the charity suspended five staff over allegations of an inappropriate relationship between a worker and a vulnerable resident.

It led to one employee resigning and prompted the Housing Executive to launch a major probe and temporarily suspend new intakes.

In September of that year, DUP MLA Simon Hamilton claimed that he was aware of "further concerns... including allegations that relate to criminal activity" at the facility, which were relayed to the Charity Commission for NI.

UUP MLA Robin Swann raised concerns over claims that "conditions inside it [the hostel] were third world and that you would not keep a dog in it".

Earlier this month a hostel resident was imprisoned for six months after pleading guilty to setting fire to a coat placed on top of 18 mattresses in the facility.

A young man in his 20s died in the shelter last August and a second person was taken to hospital as a result of a separate incident on the same day.

A spokesperson for the Simon Community NI said the charity was saddened by the passing of a client and that it was assisting police with enquiries. It said "confidentiality issues" prevent it from discussing the individual circumstances of the incident.

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