Roads to recovery: How the North handles homelessness
‘I am in good shape compared to the way I was,’ says former Belfast rough sleeper
Homelessness in Belfast city centre. The charity Depaul has 156 hostel beds in Belfast, Derry and Dungannon, including 31 family units. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
His wish is to stay off the drink and move into a flat in the next seven or eight months. If he can make it on the outside, so to speak, he is confident he will resume contact with his six-year-old son. He has not seen him for a long time.
His slide into alcoholism and homelessness happened a few years ago after the breakdown of his relationship and losing his job. He was drinking a couple of litres of vodka a day or whatever alcohol was available.
“I’d always be asked by a nurse or a doctor how many units a day are you taking; it was like being asked how many breaths I took a day. I just drank whatever was there. I would drink until I passed out.”
He suffered alcohol-induced psychosis, twice ending up in mental institutions, in Northern Ireland and Castlebar, Co Mayo, and also spent some months in prison in Castlerea, Co Roscommon, on a burglary conviction.
There’s a big welt in the middle of his forehead.
“In a psychotic state you hear voices. Once I was standing outside a house in Lurgan. I thought I was being chased by the government and the IRA, and that I had to kill myself to save my son’s life. So I hit myself with an axe and fractured my skull in two places. I nearly took my head off. I hit myself about 20 times.”
Another time he went on a mad, drunken, frequently homeless tour of Ireland, heading first to Newry, then Dundalk and Drogheda, turning west for Athlone, and on to Ennis, Gort, to Galway, Ballina and ending up in Westport “tapping and stealing”. He slept rough, found an abandoned house or slept in another alcoholic’s house or flat.
“I had no cares, no restrictions. You lose all sense of reality, you are stinking, you are going around with a big beard on you, your hair down to your shoulders.”
After prison he came back to Belfast, and was persuaded by other recovering alcoholics to go into rehab at Sr Consilio’s Cuan Mhuire in Newry. After that he went to Rosemount House, which provides accommodation for 20 men in ensuite bedrooms. Residents must stay off drink or drugs while they undergo 18-24 months’ rehabilitation, after which, with supports, they move into their own accommodation.
Christopher looks in good shape now, short hair, strong bodied, healthy complexion. He has a number of months to complete before he is given a flat. The motivation to see his son is strong, and he is hopeful that will happen.
“There is a life outside drinking – undoubtedly – if you want it. I am just glad I came out of it with my life.”
Jim Butler (62), originally from Newtownabbey in north Belfast, is also a Rosemount House resident, but this new year, with a sense of apprehension and excitement, he is moving into his own flat. He has been in the hostel for more than two years.
He was also there previously but that experiment failed. Shortly after he went into a flat he took off on “one big mad binge for about three months” until he was rescued by the hostel’s manager Charlie McGarry. “I had alcoholic paralysis. I was in hospital for eight weeks. I had to be taught how to walk again.”
This time he feels he is better prepared.
Butler began his heavy drinking while he was playing on the Irish music scene in New York. He was a drummer. “When I get a lot of money it is not good for me. The more I earn, and I was earning great money in America, the more I partied. I was just going downhill and downhill, but I didn’t realise it.”
An illegal, he was eventually deported, ending up with other rough sleepers in the 1980s in the Castle Street area of central Belfast. This was during the Troubles. “It was the only place I knew I was going to be safe,” he says.
In the past couple of years at least half a dozen homeless people he knew well have died on the streets or in temporary accommodation, he says.
In the first few months of 2016, five homeless people died on the streets in Belfast. That caused shock at the time, prompting an effort by the Northern Executive and Assembly to address the problem. Yet now Stormont is moth-balled, so that too is on hold.
“I am in good shape compared to the way I was,” says Butler.
He is divorced, but says he is great friends with his former wife and with his three children. He spent Christmas Day with his daughter.
With his benefits he has managed to buy a car, and now much of his time is spent in voluntary work assisting other homeless people and those in need. He is a firm believer in the Alcoholics Anonymous maxim of one day at a time.
“For some people it is one hour at a time. Don’t worry about tomorrow, we’ll sort that out when it comes.”
Butler spends a lot of time working with Paul McCusker, a 31-year-old SDLP councillor who runs a weekend soup kitchen in an old school besides St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street in central Belfast.
In November 2014, McCusker, from Ardoyne, north Belfast, decided to personally see what homelessness was like, rough sleeping without any money and just a sleeping bag from Monday to Wednesday night. He experienced real fear and hunger while on the street. He has been involved in helping the homeless since then. He also gives lectures to students about homelessness, and has persuaded others to work in the sector.
This particular day, with other volunteers such as Bronagh McShane and John Kelly, he is taking in hampers donated by the public for the soup kitchen and for the big Christmas Day dinner attended by homeless, lonely and isolated people and those in need. There are about 50 other volunteers who help, including Butler and others from Rosemount House.
The previous week a woman accompanied by her four children aged two to seven came to him in an embarrassed state, saying she had not eaten for two days.
“Whatever money she had she used it to feed her children. When we went to her house to help her there wasn’t a tin of beans in the cupboard. People shouldn’t have to live like that.”
He makes the point that the transition from poverty to homelessness can be quick. While most people are entitled to welfare, there can be a variety of complex issues that leave people in such distress: it could be late welfare payments, family breakdown, drink and drugs or mental issues.
John Kelly, who owns a cab company in north Belfast, was just back from delivering a food hamper to a family in Newtownards, and was planning another run to a family in Portstewart on the north coast.“I did not think the problem was as bad,” he says.
He had teamed up with McCusker to ensure that no one went “hungry or without a present on Christmas Day”.
McCusker and McShane know all the rough sleepers in Belfast, and with other agencies assist and keep an eye on them. According to the Housing Executive, which has statutory responsibility for the homeless in Northern Ireland, there are just five rough sleepers in Belfast at the moment.
There is hostel accommodation for them but they prefer to stay out. One of them is a former Irish soldier in his late 60s who feels he is “unworthy” to be staying in a hostel or home. He is regularly brought food and warm clothes, as are the others.
That figure of five compares starkly with the 184 sleeping rough in Dublin. One of the reasons for that huge difference is that accommodation is easier to procure in Northern Ireland: Belfast does not have Dublin’s exorbitant rents. A single bedroom flat could cost between £350 (€390) and £500 (€560) a month depending on location, while equivalent flats in Dublin could cost €1,200-€1,500.
There is also a good supply of beds in hostels in the North provided by the likes of Depaul, Simon, the Salvation Army and the Legion of Mary.
“At one stage there were more organisations catering for the rough sleepers in Belfast than there were rough sleepers,” says McShane.
As a result these organisations diversified into work such as ensuring that when homeless people did finally get a house or flat of their own that the accommodation was warm and furnished, and that the new tenants were assisted in settling in.
The Housing Executive estimates there are 2,777 homeless people staying in hostels, bed and breakfasts and hotels and temporary flats in Northern Ireland.
And according to the Northern Ireland Audit Office, between 2012 and 2017 homelessness in the Northern Ireland cost around £300 million (€337m) to manage. The number of households designated as statutory homeless increased by 32 per cent over this period, with nearly 12,000 households accepted as homeless in 2016-17.
Hook, line and sinker
Kerry Anthony is chief executive of Depaul, which runs hostels for the homeless in the North and South. From Belfast, she graduated from Queen’s University Belfast aged 21, planning to be a teacher. First she went to work with the homeless in London for six months. “That was me hook, line and sinker.” Now, 21 years later, she is still working with the homeless.
Depaul assists more than 900 people throughout the island who are living in hostels and also in the community. It has 156 hostel beds in Belfast, Derry and Dungannon, including 31 family units. It also works with 166 people in the community in the North.
One of its operations is the Stella Maris hostel, which opened 12 years ago in the docks area of Belfast. Dubbed as a “wet service”, it caters for 23 men and women who remain “entrenched” drinkers or drug-users.
This is the cutting edge of helping the homeless. Anthony says Stella Maris is a welcoming place, but run like a “military operation”. It operates a policy of managed drinking, of residents offered, say, cans of stout instead of vodka during the day, of giving them nutritious food, and of diversionary activities to take their minds off drink and drugs.
“I am a strong believer that people deserve a chance; 100 per cent of the Stella Maris residents have reduced alcohol intake in some shape or form,” says Anthony.
She is also involved in the Housing First initiative which began four years. That was designed to allow “entrenched” drinkers to move into more permanent accommodation. And while it may sound high-risk, she says that of more than 200 people who moved into flats and homes “80 per cent were maintaining their tenancy after a year”.
She says there is no doubt from her experience that the structures for the homeless in Northern Ireland are far better than in the Republic.
“We do have enough beds in Northern Ireland but not in the South, although with about 40,000 people on the housing waiting list there are still challenges in Northern Ireland.”
And she says even in the case of the homeless the absence of a powersharing Stormont administration has a deleterious impact.
Anthony claims in general much more must be done to get people out of emergency accommodation and into proper housing. And for that to happen politics must be working. After the much-publicised deaths of five rough sleepers in early 2016, a working group was established involving the Departments of Justice, Communities and Health to plan a way forward to seriously confront the problem of homelessness.
“I was full of hope at that point that we may get to a stage that we have a more joined-up approach to homeless services in Northern Ireland, but, unfortunately, shortly after that the issues at Stormont started,” says Anthony, who wants politicians back on the job.
“I have great respect for civil servants but tackling homelessness needs ministerial commitment.”