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Compassion play: Writer Fionnuala Kennedy giving homeless women a voice

Playwright Fionnuala Kennedy knows the lack of power that comes from being homeless. She tells Joanne Sweeney how her play Hostel is helping give a voice to people who are not often heard

Playwright and theatre-maker Fionnuala Kennedy whose play Hostel is being used to create awareness of homelessness Picture: Darren Kidd /Press Eye

BELFAST native Fionnuala Kennedy has a fire in her belly and that's to use her art to help call for a special dedicated hostel for women battling addition.

"There's a hostel for men with addition in Belfast, not for women but yet we see those women on your streets, addicted to heroin or something else," said Fionnuala about her next project. She's one half of the dynamic duo behind MACHA Productions, a theatre-making company committed to producing women-only plays.

Giving a voice and a platform to those marginalised, particularly women, in our society, through a lack of housing or employment, racism or homophobia, is something that Fionnuala strives to do in her work.

Now a critically acclaimed playwright, the womens's lives that she writes about are not that distant from her own earlier life experiences. In her first play Hostel (produced by Kabosh Theatre in 2010), she used her experience of living in a Belfast hostel as a young single mother. It will be performed tonight at the Baby Grand Opera House in a special performance to an invited audience, hosted by Choice Housing and the Simon Community, to shine a light on the problem to key decision-makers.

"I had done well at school and had a bright future ahead of me but got pregnant at 20 and had my daughter Joanne at 21," explained Fionnuala. "My life was turned upside down. I gave family life a go but it didn't work out.

"I broke up with my daughter's father when she was just a baby. I wasn't working and had no money so I moved back with my mummy for a while. Then I moved into a friend's place for about eight months and also stayed with some cousins for a time. But I wasn't going anywhere with the sofa-hopping and couldn't start building a life until I had a place of my own.

"I went to the homeless advice centre as I felt I couldn't maintain a job as I was living in different places and my daughter was being passed from pillar to post. They suggested a hostel for young families. At first, I thought that there was no way I was going to live in a hostel; I suppose I thought it was below me. But I went down to look at it, it was really lovely and the staff very friendly so we lived there for nearly a year. That was in 2007."

Fionnuala said that she found the process of being offered three housing choices – one of which you must take or you go off the waiting list for a year – frustrating.

 

"All my fight was gone. I felt that I had hit rock bottom and that my whole future was in somebody else's hands, which it really is when you are homeless – you have to wait until someone else does something," she added.

"It was great when I finally did get a house in east Belfast. My daughter was able to go to the local nursery, there was an after-school club so I could still work and do longer hours. I got a better job and was able to come off all benefits."

She was greatly helped and supported by co-MACHA director Jo Egan, who gave her a job at Kabosh, where she had been creative producer.

The homelessness problem is even worse now than when Fionnuala was in the hostel; 18,600 homeless households in the north reported to the Housing Executive in the last year and more than 50 individuals declare themselves homeless every day.

“Now more than ever, people who are homeless are often viewed as exaggerating their situations to get a free house, as drug-addled wasters who don’t want to work or help themselves," Fionnuala said.

"These judgments have dangerous consequences. I want the play to offer hope in navigating and surviving this sometimes brutal system, and showing that compassion and understanding can make all the difference."

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