Belfast Telegraph

UTV reporter Judith Hill thought she understood poverty 'but this has been an eye-opener'

UTV reporter Judith Hill has spent several weeks looking at the impact that poverty is having on our most vulnerable members of society, speaking to people who are struggling, and those from all sectors who are intervening to bring help. She talks about the effect making the programme has had on her

Judith Hill
Judith Hill
Susan Duncan
Eileen Evason

By Judith Hill

Making this programme has changed me. I thought I understood poverty and homelessness; I was very familiar with the phrase that each of us is only two or three pay packets away from ending up without a home.

But to listen to people's back stories and understand the reality of that is something totally different.

We spent time in St Patrick's soup kitchen on Belfast's Donegall Street and the range of people who come there for support is eye-opening.

It's a real safe haven for people - it's community, it feels like family for some. The team who run it are an inspiration but their frustration is clear too. They feel they are responding to a growing crisis rather than seeing prevention, education and early intervention take place.

Those who were brave enough to speak to us were so honest and unfiltered about their lives.

I'll never forget the regret in some of their eyes; whether it was Glen casting his mind back to playing football as a teenager - and wishing he could have just one more moment in front of the goal; or Rachel telling me she never thought she'd be someone who would end up on the streets. I could see how for each of them life could have gone, and still could go, either way. I felt their sadness, but saw their fighting spirit too.

We also chatted to Susan Duncan who works for the Welcome Organisation and she shared with us the crucial part they play in helping homeless people try to get a bed for the night. This can be a nightly uncertainty for people, some of whom are battling major addictions, to find out if they get a space in a hostel.

We met one woman, who has a job, who spent nights sleeping in her car because she had no accommodation. In fact the back stories of all of those on the streets that we met are heartbreaking; one young guy used to be a youth worker but now beds down each night in Belfast city centre. His life had just spiralled out of his control.

Each of their stories were marked by tragedy, they each had their battles - and as I listened to the life events that had impacted them, I was able to understand how each of them had got there.

Beyond the human stories it was important too to understand the big picture of the growing poverty problem here.

I interviewed leading academic, Professor Eileen Evason, who spoke about the difficulties many are having as a result of the Universal Credit system, with many finding the online application process very challenging, compounded by a long wait for first payment once approved.

Her point is that the system was designed by people who clearly have never been short of money in their lives. Although the government themselves continue to insist they will protect the most vulnerable.

But, despite the difficulties people are having, there are messages of real hope and examples of those who are fighting their way out of the poverty corner.

Mum Charlene is one of those characters. She shared with us how life fell apart for her; she ended up on the street but has battled back and is now in temporary accommodation. Her Christmas dream of gathering her family around the same table is coming true.

It's been moving too witnessing the incredible spirit of people here, those who intervene to offer help and support - and there are so many of you out there.

In many ways those getting the help are the brave ones. They've been able to reach out for support.

I can't help wondering how many others out there are trapped in dark, cold houses - living impoverished lives - fearing for the future, but not yet able to ask for the help they so desperately need.

This programme would not have been possible without the cooperation and honesty of our interviewees who are being affected by poverty, as well as those workers and volunteers who are so committed to helping.

Poverty is a 365-day-a-year issue but we wanted to shine a light on how hard it can be at Christmas, financially and emotionally.

'Up Close - The Poverty Spiral', tonight, 10.45pm on UTV

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