‘I could have ended up sleeping on the streets’

Newly elected  MLA  Clare Bailey .
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Newly elected MLA Clare Bailey . Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Newly elected Green Party MLA Clare Bailey talks about her experience of being homeless and why she will be championing the issues of gender and equality at Stormont

There have been many television programmes made about politicians ‘slumming it’, living, as singer Jarvis Cocker succinctly put it, “like common people”, on the dole, on the streets, in rough housing estates.

However noble the sentiment behind these experiments, they are, nonetheless, just that - brief flirtations with poverty and homelessness - hardships for entertainment value and little else.

But the Green Party’s deputy leader Clare Bailey, 45, who was recently elected as an MLA for south Belfast, doesn’t have to imagine what life is like as a homeless person, because she has experienced it first-hand.

Back in 2008, the bubbly politician found herself in a dire situation. She was a single parent, with two young children, and nowhere to live.

She explains: ‘‘We always lived in private rental accommodation - there were no conditions for us to be put on the social housing waiting lists. We were given 28 days notice to quit the property because they wouldn’t do a monthly contract.’’

The timing of this monumentally distressing situation couldn’t have been worse.

‘‘We had just booked our first ever holiday to Greece and we were all so excited. But I had to go and declare myself as homeless to the NI Housing Executive. They came and collected all our stuff and put it into storage and the next day my children and I went on holiday. We landed back at Aldergrove Airport on July 12 that year with nowhere to go.’’

Bailey concedes she wasn’t aware of her housing rights, and only for the help of a few close friends who put her up, she could have ended up on the streets.

‘‘My son was about to start first year of secondary school and my daughter was going in to P7. I was back at Queen’s studying (she graduated with a Politics Degree when she was 37) and was due to go into my final year. We still had to buy uniforms, we still had to have that outer facade of a normal life, but at the same time I had to sort out the housing, I had to find out why was I homeless, how did this happen, who do I go to, who’s responsible for this, how do I not be homeless anymore, what are my options, but there is no one to tell you any of this, there is nowhere to go where you can find this out.’’

She was homeless for four months and ended up staying in a homeless hostel on Belfast’s Ormeau Road.

‘‘What I found out is that being homeless is a full-time job because you have to be proactive in trying to resolve the situation. I wasn’t homeless because I wasn’t paying rent, or I was a bad tenant, I was homeless simply because I didn’t know my rights. I found out later on, that I was under no obligation to leave that house, that I was entitled to stay until I found suitable accommodation to move to, but at the time I didn’t know that, I had been given my notice to quit and I thought I had to quit.’’

The family were eventually offered accommodation with the social housing association Helm Housing just before Christmas.

‘‘It was a brand new build. I remember the first day getting the keys, there were concrete floors and walls. We just moved in with our sleeping bags.’’

Clare Bailey’s situation may have eventually been resolved, but the fallout from the homeless experience remains with her.

‘‘It’s major trauma. Your mental health suffers immensely and it doesn’t just become OK when you get a house because that whole insecurity, trauma and panic stays with you for a long time.’’

She also speaks candidly about the challeneges of being a single parent.

‘‘It was tough, still is and always will be.

‘‘The isolation and the lack of support are the two things that will never leave me and there were years when there were, I’ll not say black clouds, but it was reallly, really hard. Going to work, or trying to work, and childcare costs, you couldn’t do it, it was just absolutely impossible, so I had long periods of my life when I was bringing up my kids and I was on benefits. Poverty was a big factor in our lives for most of those years.’’

The west Belfast-born politician is speaking to me in her new office at Parliament Buildings, which has been freshly painted, she jokes, in ‘standard Stormont beige’.

She’s funny, warm and open. Wearing a tailored blazer, pretty floral dress and pearl necklace, Bailey looks demure and very much the proper politician, but when she tucks her burgundy-coloured hair behind her ear I spot a helix ear piercing, one high up in the ear, a nod, perhaps, to unconventionality.

The congratulations cards from her win in south Belfast, jostle for space on top of a cabinet.

She wasn’t surprised by the election result, but was ‘‘over the moon’’ and to be finally sitting in Stormont, is, she concedes, just ‘‘a wee bit strange.’’

‘‘I was hoping that we would get over 3,000 (votes) but we ended up with 3,500 first preferences and got elected on just over 6,000 which was just amazing.’’

She and her team worked extremely hard in the run-up to the election, pounding pavements, and knocking on doors - so much so in fact, that it took a physical toll.

‘‘On the Sunday (after the result) I woke up and my eyes were hanging out, my throat had closed and my voice had gone. I ended up with a lung infection and conjunctivitis,’’ she says shruggin her shoulders, seemingly nonplused by the ailments.

There hasn’t been time for the official celebrations; her focus at the moment is on finding a consitutency office, hopefully in her heartland of Shaftesbury Square.

Clare Bailey was elected as deputy leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland in November 2014 and was the driving force behind it becoming a pro-choice party.

She has worked for Nexus, the Northern Ireland charity which supports those who have experienced sexual abuse and violence, and volunteers for Marie Stopes - something, she says, she will continue to do.

‘‘Marie Stopes is in south Belfast, on a street in the constituency that I represent and I will not shy away from that.

‘‘Women need unbiased, unfettered information in order to make choices for themselves and I will do everything that I can to make sure that gets out there.’’

Women’s rights are close to her heart, and she has been described as ‘‘a card carrying feminist.’’

‘‘Joining (the Greens) was a deliberate attempt to make my voice louder. After everything I had come through I was an angry woman with a lot to say and I felt the female experience is so silent in public life, I think it is very male dominated.’’

Clare was brought up in a political household. Her single parent mother was employed as a community worker and moved the family, Clare and her ‘‘Irish twin’’, a sister who is 11 months older than her, from the Lower Falls to a housing estate in Antrim town in 1977. A brother came along later.

‘‘Back in the early Seventies my mother started cross community holidays and used to bring kids out to Holland. My sister and I used to go out with her.’’

She was also part of the first intake of pupils at Lagan College, Northern Ireland’s first integrated school and loved her time there, although she left with few qualifications.

She studied Drama at Rupert Stanley and then moved to London to work in hospitality.

‘‘My first address when I moved to London was Park Lane, the Grosvenor House Hotel. I started off as a chambermaid and by the time I was leaving I was an accounts clerk

‘‘That was the first time I had ever seen real wealth and that was a big learning curve for me....to see real class divide and what wealth could empower somebody to have.’’

She moved back to Belfast and ‘‘job-hopped’’. working in retail and then in a collective called Gyros - it was the ethos of this organisation, she says, that drove her into formal politics.

‘‘I found out about the Greens when I was at Queen’s. When I discovered there was alternative political options and viable ones as well in Northern Ireland, then I got excited and started looking into the social justice policies. But the real clincher for me was grassroots democracy. The members lead the party and not the other way round.’’

She says becoming a mother - her children are now 19 and 20, and this was the first year they all voted together - was also a big factor in her decision to become an active politico.

‘‘I don’t want it to be the same for them as it was for me. I don’t want politics to be as confusing and not make sense and not relate to them.’’

After a couple of hours in her company, I get the feeling that with Ms Bailey’s determination to stand up for the voiceless and the marginalised, politics might just start to make sense to more people.