Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Disgrace Stormont lying idle as people perish in streets

By Fionola Meredith

There is something painfully poignant about the fact that the homeless man who died in Belfast city centre was huddled in the doorway of a soft-furnishings shop.

Cushions, pillows, duvets, quilts: that's what this shop sells. All the cosy everyday comforts of home that we take for granted, to keep us warm through the winter.

The man who died had none of these comforts.

He had only the cold, hard pavement, and the freezing night air.

By the time they found him in the morning, he was gone.

Homelessness is one of those intractable, complicated social problems that we would rather not see.

It's easier to pretend that people who find themselves sleeping rough on the streets are not like the rest of us, that they're somehow to blame for their own misfortunes, and so we look away. But the loss of this human life is no less a tragedy than the loss of any other.

Nobody dreams of being homeless and without shelter.

To die alone in a doorway is a terrible way to leave this world.

Last October, it was reported that nearly 150 people registered as homeless had their applications for social housing closed because they had died while they were waiting for somewhere to live.

Most of the deceased were aged 60 or younger, and most of them were men. The youngest to die was only 18-years-old.

For those of us who are lucky enough to have somewhere safe, private and warm to call home, it might seem incredible that some homeless people choose to stay out on the street even when they have a bed available for the night.

But Sandra Moore, chief executive of the Welcome Organisation, the charity whose members discovered the dead man on Friday morning, has explained that rough sleepers are among the most vulnerable people in society.

Some of them are struggling with mental health and addiction problems.

This means some may end up staying out on the street to continue drinking, or taking drugs, rather than going to a hostel for the night.

Who is going to blame them? Who knows how many of us would react, if we were in that hellish situation?

There are no easy answers to the difficulties faced by people who find themselves desperately struggling from hour to hour, seeking to anaesthetise themselves from the pain of their lives in the only way available to them.

There is a terrible loss of dignity in living rough.

Recently, the PSNI called on shoppers to stop giving money to beggars in Belfast city centre, because evidence indicated that the cash was often spent on drugs.

But I believe that it is up to each individual, and our own consciences, to decide if we want to give destitute people money.

Their ability to act, to make their own decisions, is already pitifully reduced.

At least they should be able to decide for themselves how to spend a few coins donated by a sympathetic passer-by, whether or not the choice is a healthy one.

The return of functional government to Northern Ireland could not provide any immediate solution to the homelessness crisis.

But it is appalling that Stormont is standing empty while people are dying on the streets of Belfast.

Belfast Telegraph

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