Ophelai: Soup kitchen solace for Northern Ireland homeless while volunteers give help to those in need
As Storm Ophelia raged yesterday, Belfast volunteers took action to protect homeless people.
At a soup kitchen on Donegall Street beside St Patrick's Church, hot food was served as volunteers searched for those still out on the streets as the intensity of the gale force winds increased.
By late afternoon, around six people were receiving help with one fatigued man in a wheelchair provided with an improvised bed made from soft chairs.
SDLP councillor Paul McCusker said the main challenge had been helping those sleeping rough.
"We're trying to maintain their safety while they're on the streets as well," he said.
"There's one man whose been sleeping rough for over 14 years, we'll be keeping a close eye on him and others you would call entrenched sleepers."
St Patrick's Church soup kitchen remained open through the evening with those in need of help provided with clothes and found shelter for the night.
Nine hotel rooms were donated at one point from a group hoping to visit Belfast but who had their flights cancelled due to the dangerous weather. Volunteer Lenny Craig (46) lives in Rosemount House on the Antrim Road, a shelter helping homeless people looking for permanent accommodation and with addiction issues.
"I'm a recovering alcoholic and I've been on the streets myself so I know what it's like. I know what the mental health issues out there are, I have a lot of them myself," he said.
"Every day is a struggle for a lot of these people, they need all the help they can get."
Lenny said he was hoping to bring as many people in to get help as soon as possible.
"I can understand another alcoholic out there on the street. They badly need that help with their mental health and getting shelter. That's what will help long-term.
"I've had a lot of assistance but my life's becoming manageable. I'm taking it a day at a time and going to meetings and helping others and giving back."
Volunteer Chris Anderson (17), said often the best way to help the most vulnerable was to listen.
"I've always been involved in charity organisations like the S.O.S bus. This soup kitchen here at St Patrick's has been such a help," he said.
"We have a massive room with tons of food being donated from all across Belfast and elsewhere.
"I'll be talking to people, listening to what their problems are and see if their needs are clothes, food, accommodation or just to hear how they're coping."
He added: "Sometimes people are afraid to come in. That's why people like Lenny are so important, with his experience he's able to help reassure them we're here to help and everyone's equal."
Elsewhere across the city, the Housing Executive opened their Belfast regional office on Great Victoria Street to homeless people.
In central Belfast, the Salvation Army's Crash Centre opened seven hours early at 3pm.
Emergency arrangements were also put in place to increase the number of crash beds at Annesgate for homeless people while the Welcome Centre's Drop In facility at Townsend Street was prepared to stay open throughout the night.
In Londonderry, the Housing Executive's Waterside office remained open on Glendermott Road while the Damien House Hostel at Foyle Road was on standby.
In Cookstown, the Must Hotel on Molesworth Street was available for emergency shelter all night while in Dungannon the Castlehill Hostel opened their doors.