As I walked through Belfast City Centre a couple of Fridays ago I passed, scattered among the late-night revellers, five maybe six rough sleepers. Some were out cold, some awake looking vacantly at the crowds and some taking the opportunity of the passing footfall to ask for spare change.
Seeing rough sleepers in Belfast is nothing new, I recall them from my childhood too. But it remains something that is hard to see and fathom, at this time of year in particular. These rough sleepers are in contrast to the hundreds who were full of merriment. I passed a group laden with bags – a shopping trip which had turned into a session. There were queues at the late-night takeaways, looking to line the stomach to take the edge off their hangovers.
Here too was I, after a night spent with friends, walking to catch a late-night bus home, to my bed, in a warm house, which I call my own – something which the shoppers and pizza eaters would likely do also. We are the lucky ones, in many ways.
I am fortunate to have never been without a place to live. But when living in New Zealand, in just over four years my wife and I lived at eight different properties and was twice given the statutory 40 days’ notice from my landlord. We were lucky to be able to find an alternative, but a number of occasions we had to bridge tenancies staying with friends or taking temporary accommodation in a hotel or AirBnB. While we were by no means homeless and nor did we have to depend on the state, it was un-nerving and on a number of occasions I felt very exposed. I experienced only a fraction of the nervousness and fear that those who face real homelessness experience, a fear which I can only imagine.
I have seen homelessness amongst my peers. I knew a businessman who slept in his car as he had lumped all his cash to save his business – he rode out the storm and now has a fixed abode. Another story is one of a school peer who despite his grammar school education and being ridiculously intelligent, through the circumstances of life has found himself on the streets. My most recent knowledge is that he has not ridden out the storm.
These are some of the human stories of homelessness in the UK and Ireland, which has now reached crisis levels. Rough sleeping in the UK has doubled since 2010 and figures released this week in the Republic indicate that almost 10,000 people will be homeless in Ireland over Christmas, a figure which has more than trebled since 2014 according to Focus Ireland. Here in Northern Ireland, the 2012 Homelessness Strategy aimed to eliminate homelessness and rough sleeping by 2020. But 2017 data indicates that numbers in fact increased by 32% between 2012 and 2017. A clearly failed objective, but the owners of the strategy and its replacement, the NI Housing Executive, are but one under resourced player in a much bigger housing and homelessness conundrum.
How can we in 2018, with everything that we have in the world be facing this crisis? What has changed since 2010 that has led to these increases? How can someone whose life path was the same as mine, provided with all that is supposed to give you the tools to prosper, end up on the streets?
Former NI Secretary of State James Brokenshire, now Housing Minister, this week denied that government policy was contributing to the UK crisis. Instead Brokenshire cited problems of drug addiction, family breakdown and LGBT teenagers and young people being kicked out by homophobic relatives as being factors. This is a ridiculous response, citing some micro issues and ignoring the macro picture.
It is clear that there are a range of interrelated contributory factors – housing supply, population increases and increasing population density, rising rents, wage stagnation are all in the mix. The long tail of the 2008 crisis and government austerity underpin these factors.
Combined, the above remind me to be thankful, that as I head home for Christmas, I am lucky to have a place that I call home and the means to sustain that. And my one wish for 2019 is that with Brexit hopefully settling that the resultant additional bandwidth available will see government and policy makers in London, Belfast and Dublin take an honest look at this issue. If they continue to deny its causes, like James Brokenshire has done, it is a problem that will get worse before it gets better.
John Lavery is an economist and policy advisor specialising in regional, sub-regional and local economic development and city and regional competitiveness. Recently returned to Belfast after five years in New Zealand, John is a Senior Manager with the Baker Tilly Mooney Moore Economic Advisory team. Tweets at @jp_lavery