Jim Dennison is Chief Executive of the Simon Community Northern Ireland and writes for us about the impact of homelessness in Northern Ireland.
What do you see when you think of homelessness? Most of us will think of a young man sleeping rough in a city centre doorway, or someone drunk on a park bench surrounded by empty cans. Whilst this unfortunately is the reality for some, most homelessness is hidden from view, out of sight and therefore out of mind. But look closer and you will see that hidden homelessness is a growing problem in Northern Ireland, and the stereotype we have come to associate with it is not the truth. They are young people, older people, families with children, and they are sleeping on the floors and sofas of friends and family, in their cars, in bed and breakfasts, in unsafe accommodation, in squats, or anywhere they can put a roof over their heads. And they are in towns and villages across Northern Ireland.
The truth is that most of us are much closer to homelessness that we may think.
A recent survey found that most of us are only two pay cheques away from homelessness; ten years ago, the figure was four. The impact of the economic downturn has meant that many of us are much less financially secure than in previous years, with 42% of households in Northern Ireland admitting that they have no savings. Most of us take for granted the fact that we will pay our rent or mortgage each month, but if we consider the reality, it only takes a couple of months without our usual income before this can slip, especially given that many of us do not have the luxury of savings.
When you think about it, homelessness may not be as far from our doors as we might think.
As part of Homelessness Awareness Week, Simon Community NI is launching its seasonal billboard campaign which focuses on the issue of hidden homelessness.
At present, government collect statistics on the number of people who ‘present’ to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive as “homeless,” of which there are some 20,000 people. But right now, no one knows exactly how many “hidden homeless” there are in Northern Ireland, and so little is being done to address the problem.
Simon Community NI will be undertaking research to explore the extent of the problem so that we can start taking steps to tackle it. Homelessness is unacceptable, and no one should have to go to sleep at night without a roof over their head, or worrying about where they might sleep the night after.
It is time that we all face up to the reality of homelessness and accept that it is no longer someone else’s problem. Homelessness can be eradicated – and we need to act now.