Monday, 21 November 2011

Homelessness Week

This is Homelessness Week and tonight I visited the drop-in centre run by the Welcome Organisation at St Peter's Square in West Belfast.

On my arrival I was able to present a cheque for £70,000 to Ricki Rowledge, director of the Council for the Homeless NI.  They distribute this through many other providers, such as the Salvation Army, so that every homeless person has shelter and a warm meal on Christmas Day.

After that Sandra Moore, director of homelessness services with the Welcome Organisation, gave me a tour of their drop-in centre.  The centre provides a place of refuge during the day, a place to spend time, to talk to others and be safe and warm. It also provides facilities for showering and to wash clothes.

Welcome delivers a range of services for homeless people and rough sleepers in Belfast - the drop-in centre, a street outreach service and the Divis emergency crash bed facility for women.   Their primary aim is to reduce the number of people sleeping rough and help rough sleepers move off the streets in Belfast.

After seeing the services provided in the centre, I went out with several members of staff in the minibus for the street outreach service.  We drove around central Belfast and visited a number of the locations where people sleep rough, including the porch of a city centre church, an area of rough ground where people sleep beneath the trees and shrubs, or a doorway beside a shop.  Some others squat and sleep at night in derelict buildings.  Tonight was fairly mild but what must it be like for them when the weather is really cold?  Many of us pass these sites regularly and yet are unaware that they are used overnight by rough sleepers.

I was saddened to see the extent of the problem and yet very much impressed by the dedication of the outreach workers.

The reasons why people sleep rough are varied but they include alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness.  Some people have a single issue but many others have several problems.  For example, many people with an alcohol or drug addication also suffer from mental illness.  Yet there are others who do not drink or use drugs and whose plight is entirely the result of mental illness.

Our driver knew the men and women he deals with by name.  Some are rough sleepers and some are on the verge of becoming rough sleepers.  He could spot a group of them standing in the shadows at a street corner, or another rough sleeper who was staggering around near Castle Junction.  Most are male but some are female - the ratio is about 6 to 1 - and some of them are very young.  One was a young woman who is just 23 and an alcoholic.

As a society, we should be a compassionate society and how we care for the most damaged and the most vulnerable people is a measure of that compassion. I was saddened to see so many people whose lives have been wrecked by addiction or trauma but deeply impressed by the work of the Welcome Organisation in reaching out to help them.

Some can be picked up and are willing to go into crisis accommodation overnight. Others refuse but can be helped out with a warm drink or some food. 

Welcome is one of a number of organisations that work in this field.  Recently I also visited the Depaul hostel for alcoholics, which is. in the docks area, and also the Depaul day centre in Londonderry.

The Department for Social Development has a Supporting People programme and there are clearly many folk in our society who need that support.

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