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Homeless charity that housed tragic Richard Erskine appeals for funding to help Northern Ireland's marginalised

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Deirdre Canavan of De Paul

Deirdre Canavan of De Paul

Janet Erskine with her son Richard, who died at the age of 27

Janet Erskine with her son Richard, who died at the age of 27

Janet Erskine

Janet Erskine

Freddie Parkinson

The Stella Maris hostel run by DePaul in north Belfast

The Stella Maris hostel run by DePaul in north Belfast

DePaul logo

DePaul logo

Deirdre Canavan of De Paul

The manager of a homeless charity has called for more investment in care facilities for the most marginalised people in Northern Ireland.

Deirdre Canavan's call to local politicians follows yesterday's shocking story of Richard Erskine, a Cambridge-educated schoolboy genius who died from alcohol poisoning at just 27-years-old after his life spiralled out of control.

Ms Canavan, senior services manager at Depaul - one of whose facilities housed Richard in his final days - revealed that the organisation has been struggling to attract and maintain staff since its funding was slashed by 5% in 2017.

She also called for a full roll-out of Depaul's 'Housing First' service so that a growing number of homeless people and rough sleepers with extremely complex needs can be addressed comprehensively - an objective supported by Richard's mother Janet, whose harrowing interview in the Belfast Telegraph has once again brought the situation into sharp focus.

"The demand for our services is increasing all the time," Ms Canavan said.

"More people who present are in crisis and they need help now."

Depaul runs 20 facilities in the Irish Republic and nine in Northern Ireland, including Stella Maris in north Belfast which was established in 2005 as a first-of-its-kind wet hostel for long-term rough sleepers with entrenched alcohol addiction.

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Janet Erskine with her son Richard, who died at the age of 27

Janet Erskine with her son Richard, who died at the age of 27

Janet Erskine with her son Richard, who died at the age of 27

Richard Erskine's lifeless body was found under a bridge not far from Stella Maris, where he'd been staying in the run-up to his untimely death on October 12, 2019 as a result of alcoholism.

That particular hostel offers specialist high-support accommodation for 23 residents, comprising long-term male and female street drinkers and people with a long history of addiction.

But it's a perennial financial struggle for facilities like this.

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Janet Erskine

Janet Erskine

Freddie Parkinson

Janet Erskine

"We operate the service on the principles of low threshold," Ms Canavan said.

"That means we have few restrictions in place so that makes it easier for people to be able to access that service and we work on the basis that we use a harm-reduction method of practice.

"It's about helping individuals move forward and reduce the harm they are doing to themselves through their entrenched addiction issue.

"It could be somebody who is drinking hard spirits; we try in a planned manner, in agreement with them, that they move on to less harmful alcohol types and then try and reduce the amount of times that they drink throughout the day, so we have very robust alcohol management support plans in place for each individual within the service."

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The Stella Maris hostel run by DePaul in north Belfast

The Stella Maris hostel run by DePaul in north Belfast

The Stella Maris hostel run by DePaul in north Belfast

Ms Canavan said each service user at Stella Maris has a dedicated worker to help them with a range of issues.

"It's not just around the addiction; people have mental health issues, they have physical health needs, etc so it's about the holistic approach," she said.

"Since 2015 the demographics of that service user group has changed quite dramatically, with the majority of individuals now presenting with poly-substance addictions and severe mental health issues.

DePaul logo

"They are much, much younger - currently between the ages of 18 and 45, when it used to be 38-45 upwards - and that is putting staff under a lot of pressure."

That comes against a backdrop of cuts to the funding of its accommodation-based services in recent years, causing real difficulties in recruiting social care staff to meet the needs of people presenting to its services.

In 2018 in Northern Ireland, Depaul helped 522 children, representing an increase of 42%, and worked with 257 families, a hike of 19% on the previous year.

Eight babies were born into its services in 2018 and nine lives were saved through the administration of Naloxone, a life-saving antidote that reverses the effects of drug overdose.

The charity also provided 156 bed spaces each night.

"In our family services we've seen that leap because a lot of families are now facing poverty," said Ms Canavan.

"Welfare reform and the way benefits are now paid is having an impact on families because they could be waiting for weeks before they get any benefits through and they end up in debt which can put their tenancies at risk.

"Poverty is definitely an issue and a lot of our families are relying on food banks."

Although Richard Erskine tragically passed away five months ago today, as a result of his addiction to alcohol, Ms Canavan, who is responsible for all nine local Depaul facilities, said there are numerous success stories as well.

"We have many individuals who go on to live very fulfilled lives in their own tenancies," she said.

"This is a moment in time in someone's life. It could happen to anyone. Homelessness should not define the individual."

She said that "people want to be helped and they're willing to be helped" but she also acknowledged that "the outcome is not always as we hope", adding that "people do pass away".

"We lose people to health-related issues that may have originated from their long-entrenched addiction so I'm not saying there is a success story everywhere," she said.

"But we have had individuals who have come through our services and have become volunteers, or have gone on to become employees.

"We've had individuals who've gone on to university and are now working in prestigious jobs. Service users come back and say that if it hadn't been for our support they would have been dead."

When asked how someone with a lot of promise goes off track and ends up in a hostel like Stella Maris, Ms Canavan said it's "not always obvious".

"Very often when someone comes to our services they are already in crisis," she said.

"It could be a trauma that has occurred in their earlier years, it could be an underlying mental health issue that has gone undiagnosed and then other issues pile up on top of that.

"Family breakdown is one of the most common causes of people coming into homelessness."

Ms Canavan said there are a variety of reasons why younger people are accessing the services Depaul provides.

"Firstly, drugs are much easier to come by because they can be purchased on the street or online and that's an issue," she said.

"There has definitely been an increase in mental health issues.

"There's a relationship between poor mental health and addiction but there's also an increase in poor mental health separate from addiction.

"As a result of poor mental health, people sometimes turn to alcohol or drugs as a support and before they know it that's also an issue."

Ms Canavan also pointed to housing pressures in Northern Ireland.

"People are sharing more, they can't get onto the property ladder or they can't actually get into suitable, affordable, long-term housing," she said.

Depaul runs two family accommodation units in Belfast, Cloverhill and Mater Dei family services.

It's also behind Floating Support Services, Harm Reduction Floating Support Services and a Day Centre for street drinkers in the Foyle area in Londonderry.

It works with the most marginalised people in society providing low-threshold support, meaning those most in need have access to the care they need.

Depaul was also the first organisation to operate the Housing First model on the island of Ireland, starting in Belfast and spreading to Derry.

"Housing First aims to place homeless individuals into their own accommodation in the community and our workers case co-ordinate packages of support around those individuals to help them sustain their tenancy," the senior manager said.

"We are the only commissioned service to deliver Housing First in Northern Ireland. It's part of an international model and we're calling for further investment in it."

Ms Canavan said Housing First is a "unique" service "for a very small percentage of the overall homeless population" who have "very complex needs".

"We would help identify permanent housing solutions for that individual because communal settings, like supported accommodation, are not always the best place for some individuals with complex needs," she said.

"They find it difficult to live in hostel-type accommodation and want to be in a property of their own so we identify a property for that person and case co-ordinate support around it.

"We were pioneering in setting that particular model up in Northern Ireland in 2013. We piloted it using existing money to move people out of Stella Maris into their own accommodation in the community."

With success came additional funding and Depaul was able to roll it out as a permanent service.

"It's just in Belfast and Derry at the moment but we're calling for it to be placed in the Programme for Government as a priority for Northern Ireland like they do in Scotland," she said.

"We'd also be asking for a full roll-out of Housing First throughout Northern Ireland.

"Housing First is all about housing people first and then putting the supports in place.

"Traditional models of support have been that individuals have to abstain from their alcohol or drug addiction or they have to be abstinent in order to get services but we're saying that is not necessary for this particular model.

"It's about getting them into the property first and then putting a package of support around them.

"It's for the likes of people in Stella Maris and other people who are sleeping rough or homeless with very complex needs."

Ms Canavan said the majority of Depaul's funding comes through the Supporting People Fund that is administered by the Housing Executive from the Department of Communities. But it isn't enough.

"The statutory funding has been static for the last 10 to 11 years," she said.

"There has been no uplift in funding to our organisation or organisations like us in the voluntary sector.

"There was a 5% cut in funding in 2017 and that has had a significant impact for us as an organisation on the recruitment and retention of staff.

"We would be seeking a restoration of the 5% that was cut a couple of years ago and a commitment to increase the funding that comes into the sector.

"That's because it's important that we deliver the services to high standards and it's important that we improve the salaries for our workforce."

Belfast Telegraph