Belfast Telegraph

'My sister died on the streets but if she'd got the help she needed she'd still be with us'

By Lauren Harte

The sister of a homeless woman found dead in a shop doorway in Belfast city centre almost three years ago has called for more support for people suffering mental health issues.

The body of Catherine Kenny, from Downpatrick, was discovered at a derelict shop on Royal Avenue shortly after 9am on March 19, 2016.

The 32-year-old mother-of-one, who suffered psychiatric and addiction problems, was hospitalised three times before she passed away from an alcohol and drugs overdose.

She had lived on the streets for 11 months consecutively and her older sister Lee-Maria Kenny Hughes visited her on many occasions.

Mrs Hughes (39) said her sister's battle with addiction began when she was 16, but in her last years it took hold of her.

Mrs Hughes had attempted to get her sister - one of five homeless people found dead in Belfast city centre in just seven weeks in early 2016 - into rehab only days before she died.

As he walked to work yesterday morning, her brother David came upon the scene on High Street where a homeless man had been found dead.

Yesterday Mrs Hughes, who has a young son Jack with her transport manager husband Darren, said her "baby" sister's tragic death is always on her mind.

She said: "To be fair it doesn't take something like this to bring back what happened to Catherine on that day.

"We live with the loss of our baby sister every day. It's still very raw and the loss very great.

"When I heard the news this morning I just thought 'not again'. Three years on, unfortunately things haven't improved around homelessness and with the best will in the world I don't see the situation changing.

"We need to get to the bottom of why people have to live in this way and why they feel that that's all they're worth - to lie on the streets of Belfast, not go home to their families and not be part of normal society.

"As far as I'm concerned the only reason that people end up in that situation is because they have severe mental health issues.

"Perhaps if we had some sort of a government in place there would be some way to help people. But mental health is the major taboo that nobody wants to talk about and the politicians need to focus on that."

Mrs Hughes, a plumbing industry worker, wants to see proper channels in place for those with mental health problems.

She added: "It's very black and white for me - once you tackle mental health, the rest falls into place.

"I understand that some people don't want help but we can nip it in the bud before they become so reliant on alcohol and drugs to get through their day.

"The only thing they are trying to do is escape their own head, which ultimately leads to where I am today. When it gets to that stage it's very hard to bring them back as I well know.

"We have got to intervene sooner when someone confirms to themselves that they have a problem. That should then be nursed and nurtured to keep the person from drowning in addiction, self-harm and self-pity and believing that all they're worth is to be on the streets.

"I wasn't able to keep my sister safe and protected. She was so far gone with her own demons in her own head that I couldn't help her."

Mrs Hughes believes the system is at fault for what happened to her sister and that residential rehab could have saved her life.

At the inquest into Miss Kenny's death in January 2017, coroner Joe McCrisken said there were still insufficient rehabilitation services available in Belfast.

"Residential rehab was not at my beck and call for Catherine which was another massive bone of contention for me," Mrs Hughes added.

"Two weeks before she died, a rehabilitation unit told me they could only see Catherine six weeks later.

"When my sister finally came to me to say she wanted proper help, and then I went looking for that help from the professionals, they couldn't give it to me.

"If she had got the help she needed, I've absolutely no doubt that she would still be here with us today.

"My sister died two weeks later in a dirty shop doorway on the streets of Belfast. Where's the compassion and humanity in that? Nobody cared about her, she was just another statistic in Northern Ireland."

But Mrs Hughes has stressed that her sister was not "just a dead body in the doorway".

"Let's not lose sight of the fact that Catherine wasn't just some homeless girl in Belfast," she added.

"She was a person - a daughter, mother, sister and auntie - who was so well thought of her whole life and that was seen in the tributes and support we received following her passing."

Belfast Telegraph

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