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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  • JoeHassit

    Rough sleeping is not the primary problem in tackling homelessness. It’s not good enough to give someone a roof, feed them and think the issue is resolved. The problem is complex. We have homelessness accommodation in NI but not enough with the right kind of support. It’s about supported accommodation helping to tackle the cause of homelessness – addictions, social isolation, mental health, literary/education, anti-social behaviour, life skills, care leavers etc. etc.

    As an aside, be careful about signing petitions supporting work done by some outreach groups. Good intention is not the same as good work. There are lots of examples of poor practice from such groups.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    I’m completely aware of these issues Joe, eyes wide open. And I agree that it isn’t just a house – from my experience being homeless as a child and researching and writing other articles on Slugger – but the fact does remain that tonight, there are people sleeping in the streets, and here is a (biased though I may be) valid and decent suggestion for how to help. Also the petition, although originating from an outreach group, would not have anything to do with the outreach group if it were successful, nor would my policy suggestion above.

  • JoeHassit

    Fair enough Kris, I can’t argue with your first hand experience and will support any and all ideas that might help. I’ve worked in hostels all over the UK for 10+ years and remain convinced that opening up short stay beds allows people in positions of power to think they’ve helped while abdicating responsibility. Opening up a space to sleep is a one night solution. But sometimes one night is good enough.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    In total agreement – I’ve done the emergency beds in b&b’s or in half way houses – but as long as any intervention on this is straplined with “this helps tonight, lets help tomorrow too” then it should do a good job

  • This makes me think of the old Mike Leigh movie Naked (I think, from memory) where David Thewlis asks a security guard working in an empty office building what he is guarding and is told ‘space’.

    I’m not too clued up on what works and what doesn’t re homelessness but it is good to see solutions instead of problems, although my cynical side thinks not many good ideas survive public sector committee thinking and risk aversion.

    As an aside, perhaps people in NI who said ‘charity begins at home’ in response to the refugee crisis would want to pitch in with a spare room.

  • Zeno

    Joe I read something a few weeks ago by Newton Emerson and He was saying that there are approximately 20 people sleeping rough in Northern Ireland but that none of them are sleeping on the streets because there aren’t systems in place and accommodation available for them. Would you agree with that?

  • JoeHassit

    Zeno, anecdotally there are much more than 20 people sleeping rough in NI (a Housing Executive report due for publication soon should give a clearer picture). There are too few beds, but the bigger problem is a lack of suitable beds. Some people (for a variety of reasons) need high levels of support to function in ‘normal’ society. They rarely get it.

  • Redstar

    Excellent idea. It’s this sort of practical thinking that’s needed in these dire emergency situs. Sadly our great civic leaders don’t do practical thinking.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Newton is wrong.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Could they use Stormont every time there’s a ‘crisis’?

    Joking aside, some good thinking there Kris, you clearly do care about your city and its people.

  • Zeno

    Thanks Joe.
    Are there not systems in place to find a bed for someone sleeping on the streets?
    Or are there simply not systems in place to deal with the problems that causes people to be sleeping rough?

  • Dan

    What became of the pod?
    Is it still there?

  • Slater

    It seems to be a fact that the new homeless prefer the streets to the existing hostels. Creating few more jobs for middle class do-gooders as Homeless Officers won’t address that change of attitude.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    And trying to adopt a positive – “what can be done” attitude, what would you suggest? Many rough sleepers have a plethora of issues, mental health, addiction etc. These need addressed – but we can’t say “what’s the point of trying to get people off a street in the cold of winter because “the new homeless prefer the street”…

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    No, it was there for winter and when winter finished, it was taken away again. I’m unsure if it’s coming back this year

  • Gerry Leddy

    All those Christians
    like Ashers Bakery owners,
    like Peter and Mrs Robinson,
    like Mrs and Mr White,
    like that Norman guy from Bangor whose granddaughter fled from, to embrace Islam,
    like All the free Presbyterians and
    like those exercised every year at the city hall on Pride day,

    All THEMINS,

    will take the homeless off the streets and into their homes.

    If they turned them away, their Jesus says that is turning HIM away {Matthew 25}

    needless to say i am tired of hearing people tell me on the radio and in the printed media telling me that they are Christian.

    IN times of hardship, they need to show us who they really are.

  • chrisjones2

    Homeless and on the streets?

    Belfast city council is more likely to attack the problem by a 3 month debate that ends up redefining ‘street’ so the problem disappears. Your problem Kris is assuming that they care