Falling through the cracks: Ulster’s hidden homeless

A billboard campaign launched by the Simon Community is promoting the message that you don't have to be living on the streets to be homeless
A billboard campaign launched by the Simon Community is promoting the message that you don't have to be living on the streets to be homeless

Homelessness affects more people than simply those we see bereft and alone in the streets, living inside a sleeping blanket.

Throughout our community there are those for whom ‘home’ is the sofa in a family member’s living room, or a bed and breakfast. And because these people do not necessarily present as homeless, we remain in the dark as to how many of them there are. LAURA MCMULLAN reports

Recent figures for 2015 have revealed that most of us are just two pay cheques away from homelessness, with 42 per cent of households in Northern Ireland admitting that they have no savings.

These stark and worrying findings were revealed as part of the recent Homelessness Awareness campaign, which took place at the beginning of the month.

And the Province’s largest homeless charity, Simon Community NI, is urging people to wake up to the fact that being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sleeping on the streets.

The organisation has now launched a billboard campaign to raise awareness of the ‘hidden homelessness’ - the unknown number of people sleeping in their cars, in squats, on the floors or sofas of family and friends, in unsafe accommodation or in bed and breakfasts.

It’s NI chief executive Jim Dennison - who revealed that the campaign featured an image of a women sleeping in her car - explained: “The stereotype of homelessness for many is the image of someone sleeping rough on the street, and while this is the case for some people, there are many, many more ‘hidden homeless’ who are much less visible in the streets and towns we live in. Many are in the workplace, have children and certainly do not fit the stereotype of what many perceive a homeless person to look like.

“We already know that Northern Ireland has proportionately the worst homelessness figures across the UK, but this is only the thin end of the wedge. While government collects statistics on those who have officially presented with the Housing Executive as homeless, there are many more who are homeless but do not show up in official figures.”

He continued: “This is a growing problem. Ten years ago, research, undertaken by Simon Community NI, found that most of us were four pay cheques from homelessness, but that has reduced to just two pay cheques in 2015, and with bad debt, rent arrears and mortgage repossessions on the rise, more people than ever are at risk of becoming homeless.

“Simon Community NI is undertaking research to explore the extent of hidden homelessness in Belfast, with a view to extending this across Northern Ireland. If figures are not there to highlight the problem, government can ignore it. That’s why we are taking a lead to ensure that they cannot sweep this growing issue aside any longer.

“We need to understand the full extent of hidden homelessness and remove the stigma which forces many to hide their problem. Homelessness is not acceptable and with the right resources and political will, it can be eradicated.”