How to get the Homeless off the streets this winter in a few simple steps…

Here’s an exciting idea… what if Belfast – and Northern Ireland – innovated instead of followed? What if we became a test bed for social innovation? If we’re totally honest, a lot of our society is riddled with problems on some level – so let’s shake things up… what’s the worst that could happen?

A homeless group called Amethyst Outreach go out at nights in Belfast City Centre and seek to help rough sleepers get what they need – food, clothes, advice – even just a friendly chat can do the world of good. Amethyst Outreach launched a petition calling for;

Belfast City Council to follow the lead of Manchester and open up empty buildings for homeless people this winter.

It’s a simple ask on the face of it: what problems are present could surely be overcome?

I was on BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan show this morning discussing this with Councillor Jim Rodgers. Jim was supportive of the idea of needing to do more, but challenged the petition with the issues of:

  • housing is a DSD/Housing Executive issue and not in the City Council’s remit;
  • Belfast City Council has none (or very few) vacant buildings;
  • health & safety / liability.

These are valid… but let’s fix them.

Firstly, when the new super councils were first mooted and then implemented, the purpose was to expand the power and purview of the councils. When it comes to the legislative hierarchy, actions and implementation is a lot swifter at council level than up at the Assembly – that’s just a simple fact of life. So deferring homelessness to DSD and the Housing Executive is fine from the point of view of legislation, but on a December/January night when the temperature hits -5 degrees, maybe the Housing Executive and DSD aren’t best suited to help in the immediacy.

Operating in Belfast, there are swarms of traffic wardens. There are also teams of litter wardens. But what official body, government agency or operative is there at the close of business any given day? Noise Control or Dog Warden maybe? Building Control might be doing inspections of entertainment premises? Is there anyone out there from a statutory body looking out for the immediate welfare of the homeless?

I’ve said before that one of the greatest bullets dodged by our political leaders, both here and in Westminster, is that of poverty, malnourishment and homelessness. Charities and similar organisations have stepped in where help was needed and filled a gap. Perhaps it’s time for Belfast City Council to fill a gap also.

Let’s move away from the vacant council buildings issue. (Although at 1am on a Tuesday night when the temperature drops below zero degrees, I’m not sure what the issue would be with opening up a badminton court in a leisure centre to get people off the streets…)

How about this as a proposal: Belfast currently has nearly 18% of shop premises vacant. What if the council open up the opportunity to have 10% cut off a rates bill? Or for the month in which a building has been requisitioned to assist in emergency homeless sheltering, no rates will be billed for?

One issue I have seen on the streets of Belfast surrounding homeless outreach and help, there is a disjointedness between the groups, many, many teams are all trying to help – with limited cohesion between them – so let’s solve that. Create a couple of jobs like Homeless Outreach Liaison Officer for Belfast City Council. Job description: “See a need, fill a need.”

Statutory bodies can already gain access to a building, for example if they suspect crime or if a fire is reported. They can also enter if there is an investigation involving the building operator/former tenant and a tax issue – it’s not like this is a huge issue. We give the Homeless Outreach Liaison Officer a budget of a load of Plywood, some lengths of chain and some locks – we give them a bit of training in joinery – job done.

Temperature hits -2 degrees, the HOLO can gain access to, say, one of the buildings that DSD spent over £8million on to renovate their frontage into a fake shop front… they inform the various charitable groups and teams out intervening on the streets that, “Due to the emergency situation of low temperature/extreme weather, the premises at 123 Main Street has been requisitioned for emergency shelter.” Come the morning when everyone has left, the HOLO informs the building owner (where available) that the building was requisitioned, upon vacation the HOLO repaired the entrance and secured with a lock – the key can be collected from the council offices.

It’s all well and good giving the council more powers, but here’s one power they could feasibly have that could genuinely save lives. The average life expectancy of someone who is homeless in Northern Ireland is 47 years of age. Just 47.

This won’t fix any of that, however it might however stop someone from dying or from taking seriously ill from exposure – very serious realities of life on the streets. Last winter a homeless man died opposite the Dáil in Dublin. A few years ago 8 rough sleepers people died on the streets of Belfast over a particularly bad winter. Between New Year and May 2014, at least 5 rough sleepers died in Belfast. The figures speak for themselves.

For those who talk about health and safety – I spoke at a Belfast City Council committee regarding the Homeless Pod that was in situ last year, and some councillors used this argument against the pod, “it’s a safety risk – what if someone were to attack it/set fire to it.” How safe do these legislators believe that sleeping on the actual streets is?

There is a problem in Belfast where rough sleepers store their sleeping bags in hiding places during the daytime, and return to discover that council workers, street cleaners etc, have removed them and disposed of them. At some point perhaps it might be nice if the Council started saying “yes” to something, and actually implemented a plan.

It’s great that people sleep rough outside of City Hall for 24 hours to raise awareness and raise money – but this is something that with the right political will, could be done, wouldn’t cost the earth, will save lives and will help.

And if someone is still worried about health and safety/legal liability, do what everyone else does and get the people to sign a waiver. If it’s a choice between a doorway in driving rain with the temperature down at -3 degrees while risking attack/assault or signing a waiver and sleeping on the floor of an unused JJB Sports premises that may or may not be used for something else in the next 18 months but may just stay vacant anyway … it’s a no brainer.

8,525 people have signed the petition so far (at time of writing).

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