‘Homeless people hold a special place in my heart’

Amethyst Outreach do work in the local community to help the homeless
Amethyst Outreach do work in the local community to help the homeless

With one sentence, Dannielle Lavery, to my mind, sums up a large part of what is essentially a stigma associated with homeless people.

“We are no better than them, and we would hate to think that anyone thought this,” says the quietly spoken 27-year-old.

“These guys are now our peers, and each and every one of them hold a special place in my heart. They are a part of my life now, and I theirs.”

The west Belfast woman speaks with such kindness and respect for Belfast’s homeless community, who have certainly hit headlines recently as the deaths of several emerged, prompting something of an outcry from an enraged local population.

She is involved in one city based organisation that involves itself in a very simple, but ultimately life saving, mission - to go out on to the streets of Belfast each night, and give those without a roof over their head donations of food, sleeping bags, scarves, gloves and more.

The organisation is called Amethyst Outreach, and it is a relatively new one, having only been formed in the summer of 2015.

PACEMAKER BELFAST   
Flowers and a message at the Scene after  another homeless person died in Belfast City Centre, Four homeless people have died in Belfast this year.
 Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

PACEMAKER BELFAST Flowers and a message at the Scene after another homeless person died in Belfast City Centre, Four homeless people have died in Belfast this year. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

However, it has not delayed in delivering an impact and having a voice.

Just last week, its volunteers handed a petition with more than 25,000 signatures to Belfast City Council, calling for the city’s empty buildings to be opened up at night so homeless people could use them as shelter.

The idea was the brainchild of one of the Amethyst volunteers, Kieran McKenna, who had seen the concept work in Manchester.

Dannielle - who is mum to four-year-old Mya and three-year-old Jack - also passionately believes that more needs to be done by local government agencies to give help to those who badly need it.

“Amethyst Outreach was set up by existing members of the old Belfast Caring Hands,” she explains.

“It was formed because a group of people felt the need to do more to help those that were not being helped by our elected representatives.”

But Dannielle admits that she was not always as aware of the plight of the homeless.

“Before I became a volunteer with Amethyst Outreach I will be honest I was ignorant to the fact of homeless rough sleepers in Belfast, and have been through quite hard times in my own life,” she says.

“I promised myself and others around me that when I felt fit and able to do something to help others, I would, and in August 2015, I took the first step and contacted Amethyst Outreach and asked to volunteer with them.”

And she added passionately: “I think no matter who you are, or what your background is, everyone is entitled to help, whether it be professional or volunteer help, no one should go unheard!”

Dannielle feels strongly that local authorities must do more to eradicate the problem of homelessness, and give support to service users.

“The guys we see week in week out can easily - and have done so - fall through cracks in our systems. Whether this be the health system, or housing, this needs to stop and to be pulled together tightly.

“Neither I nor ‘Joe Bloggs’ public can do this, only people with the power and resources can.”

But when it comes to ‘people power’ she is hopeful that the petition, which was handed personally to Belfast City Council’s chief executive Suzanne Wylie, will make a difference.

“The petition requests that the council looks at their empty buildings and does a review on which building would be most suitable to open up. We plan on getting a team together, if we are successful, to manage this building and bringing in skilled volunteers to repair the building if it needs repaired. The petition we handed in had over 18,000 signatures but right now it has 26,631 signatures.

“If we are not successful in getting a building open we might consider taking this to the .gov petition page to hopefully get 100,000 signatures to have it debated in parliament. At present it is a waiting game.”

Since the beginning of her involvement with Amethyst, Dannielle has got to know a lot of the homeless people who rely on her help on a personal level.

She says that stereotypes need to be challenged.

“This can be done by raising enough awareness to show the public that they are just normal human beings who may have made bad choices in life, or may have ended up out in the streets being no fault of their own. We must challenge the public to engage with someone who is homeless by way of conversation, to get a better understanding as to why they are out on the streets.”