Ten people will sleep on the streets of Belfast on any given night this Christmas week – but a homeless charity in the city has said that number is probably much higher.
Official figures from the Housing Executive show that during the last financial year almost 10,000 households were accepted as homeless, and a head count done on any given night shows an average of 10 people sleeping rough.
This does not account for the ‘invisible and anonymous homeless’ on our streets across Northern Ireland though, according to Sandra Moore of The Welcome Organisation, which sees 110 people through its project every day.
“Homeless people generally try to be invisible and anonymous,” she said. “From our experience we would say yes maybe visibly there are 10 people on a given night but there are others in squats and other unsuitable accommodation.
“Another thing we don’t really have a handle on is ‘couch-surfing’. We think that is a big area, particularly for young people.”
This fact is supported by statistics from the Simon Community, Northern Ireland’s local homeless charity, which said almost 40 per cent of its residents are 25 or under.
Last year the charity handled 28,000 calls from people in need and has around 2,000 people living in its accommodation at any one time.
Belfast and the city of Londonderry are the two main places where homeless people gravitate towards, Sandra said.
“The bigger cities are where the services are,” said Sandra. “But there would be a scattering of homeless people in other areas like Newry or Ballymena.
“Because Belfast is a small city it is probably a more manageable problem. It’s easier to know what services are available.
“Our first priority is the person’s basic needs, so their clothes, food, medical treatment. Then we get them linked into housing or hostels.”
The Simon Community can be contacted 24/7 on 0800 171 2222. The Welcome Organisation can be contacted on 028 9024 0424.
‘I slept with one eye open’
At just 18, after coming out of care, Jenny found herself sleeping rough on the streets of Belfast.
She said: “Every night was cold, even though it was the summer, and you slept with one eye open, frightened of someone coming up and robbing you, or worse.”
She found help from the Simon Community and worked through the issues stemming from the abuse she suffered growing up. She now lives in Lisburn with her one-year-old son Charlie.
John, who has learning and behavioural difficulties, lived in a park in Belfast for some time. It wasn’t until the 32-year-old was attacked violently one night and taken to hospital that he made contact with the Simon Community.
“The hostel gave me a safe and warm bed, a locked door and family environment. The staff there helped me get in touch with other charities that helped me with my condition and I was assured that I always would have somewhere to stay.”