BBC Spotlight – Shining a spotlight on homelessness

Spotlight has built a reputation over the years as a hard-hitting investigation programme, highlighting wrong-doings of citizens and elected representatives alike, on Tuesday 17th March it tackles a hidden issue in society, that of homelessness.


The dichotomy of Northern Ireland is such that the incomparable can often become synonymous with each other, whilst MLA’s argue about the hundreds of millions of the welfare bill and whether or not northern irish citizens could become taxed for the luxury of a spare bedroom, there are people that you and I walk passed on a daily basis in our town centres who don’t have the luxury of a bedroom…or 4 walls, that a shop door way might be their safest retreat for the evening. Reporter Mandy McAuley, who in her previous Spotlight investigations shone a light upon the dodgy dealings of MLA’s who were claiming unfair expenses and in some cases, having properties paid for by the taxpayer where they shouldn’t have, spent some considerable time on the streets with outreach organizations like The Welcome Organization. From chasing stormont ministers expenses receipts for a custom made desk or faux-historical societies claiming rent inappropriately to interviewing people who have nothing but a kerbstone for a pillow, it is for reasons like this that there are so many in our province who look to Stormont with disgust and cast a disdainful net over the whole political infrastructure.


I approached the spotlight team after the initial rush of attention died down as a result of my BBC Radio Ulster Stephen Nolan interview about my experience/Slugger article & the Homeless Pod had been taken off the streets of Belfast. I felt that there were so many people out there with something to say on the matter, some angle that maybe hadn’t been opened to the world yet, that it warranted a much wider discussion. I wasn’t sure where to go next beyond sharing my account and highlighting those organisations that got in touch and told me of the work they did, it needed a larger spotlight focused on it, which is of course where I turned to.

Ultimately, in a country as “Advanced” (and those are the 2 largest air quotes you have ever seen, trust me) as ours, homelessness as far as rough sleeping goes, should be eradicated. There will always be statistical homelessness, people evicted from their homes for various reasons and placed in emergency housing for example, but all these issues come under the one heading, there is no 1 solution to the problem… it’s like saying “lets cure cancer” (<- Worth opening).

I have outlined some of my findings in previous slugger posts, but to have something with the gravitas of Spotlight take on the challenge felt incredibly gratifying, not for myself, but for the subject matter. I merely write, I’ve visited a few different organizations and done what I can with my limited skills, but entrusting the story telling to someone else is a challenging moment. Aside from “Solving Homelessness” (Second biggest air quotes…), the next most important target in the field is to remove stigma, which is why I spoke out in the first place (thanks for the inspiration go to David Vance…if it wasn’t for you, none of this would have been possible). The Storehouse food bank undertake an outreach programme by going to schools and talking through what they do and why they do it, in the hope that maybe there is 1 kid in the assembly who is suffering something at home that they could do with a bit of help in dealing with, if some of their classmates come away from that with a bit more respect for that situation, then job done. We all know what it’s like at school, the person who turns up with tatty clothes, shoes from 3 years ago, maybe a pencil case branded from a film released years gone by…they’ll very possibly get singled out and picked on, that kid was me. If the BBC Spotlight investigation teaches anyone at all that the next time you walk passed a guy in a doorway wrapped in a sleeping bag, don’t judge them, then it will have been worth it.

I’m sure at some point everybody including me has made an assumption about someone who maybe looks like they are sleeping rough on the streets, what right do we have? How often is the first course of action for society to deal with a rough sleeper, to go heavy handed, to call the police and have them carted off, take this deplorable action in Dublin for example. Hopefully you will see a different side to homelessness after watching Spotlight this week, I’m not asking anyone to leave their entire possessions to The Welcome Organization in their will, or to instantly donate a tenner to an outreach group, not that it wouldn’t be welcome…I just want people to have a better understanding for what it’s like, to not see some bum or begger lying in a shop doorway semi-conscious from drink…see a person, see a person who might have been through more hell than you could ever know, see a person who isn’t in your way and isn’t wanting to cause a problem.

I was at Belfast City Council Parks & Leisure Committee meeting last week regarding the Homeless Pod, deputy mayor Maire Hendron said that there are people out there who put bricks through peoples homes just for being from Africa, there are people who have set fire to homeless people on the streets, having the homeless pod there with such a high profile, she worries that someone wanting to attack a rough sleeper will now have an easier go of finding someone to attack… I said to her and I say to you now, of course there are terrible people out there, but if we act only on that which we know won’t lead to idiots making stupid decisions, what good will we ever do? Perceptions need to change to make any real progress. I have complete faith in the BBC Spotlight team to share the reality of modern homelessness, the real challenge or perhaps hope is a better word… is for the public to realise that even though it may be the fault of nobody but that individual, society does have a very real responsibility to sit up, pay attention and to do what it can to help.