Northern Ireland news

Plight of north's 'hidden homeless' highlighted

An image used by the Simon Community NI to highlight the 'hidden homeless' problem
Paul Ainsworth

ONE of Northern Ireland's 'hidden homeless' has urged people to be aware of the scale of the problem within their communities.

Belfast man Fra McCartney (67) is among tens of thousands of people who have no home of their own but have yet to resort to sleeping rough thanks to a network of family and friends.

He said he received three months' notice from his landlord that the rental property he had lived in for over a decade was to be sold.

However, financial difficulties meant he was unable to secure a new tenancy, leaving him homeless as he waits for a new place through the Housing Executive.

According to the Simon Community NI, most people are potentially just two pay cheques away from a similar situation, and just under half of all households have no savings to help keep a roof over their heads should their employment end.

And while the number of people sleeping rough in towns and cities in Ireland grows, the number of hidden homeless - sleeping on floors and sofas, or in cars or squats - is almost impossible to determine.

“If I didn't have the support of friends and family such as my daughter, I often ask myself where I would be now,” Mr McCartney told The Irish News.

“It's scary to have a place to call home one day, then the next be told that the best place to go would be homeless shelters such as that run by the Salvation Army.

“There must be lots of people like me, but the problem is that many might not even consider us homeless because we are able to sleep somewhere safe thanks to the help of others.

“Yet make no mistake about it – I'm homeless. I am forced to rely on the kindness of friends and family, but I cannot impose myself like this forever; I wouldn't even want to.

“I could just as easily be forced to sleep on a park bench, and I know there are so many unfortunate people who do that. I'm sofa surfing, and although it's better than that bench, the uncertainty of my future is affecting me in many ways, causing stress and ill health.”

The pensioner said he has overcome an addiction to alcohol in the past, but his homelessness is pushing old temptations he once battled daily back to the surface.

“I believe that to tackle this problem there needs to be a wider acceptance of what is and isn't classed as ‘homeless' by wider society," he said.

"It can take several forms, and I know there are those whose problems are much more pressing, but that doesn't mean our situation should go unnoticed, especially as so many could end up like me in the blink of an eye.”

The Housing Executive said it has a statutory responsibility to respond to homelessness and funds a range of services through voluntary sector partners.

“Currently, we provide £36m to homeless services annually, which funds 2,711 temporary units across Northern Ireland and a range of support services."

Jim Dennison, chief executive of Simon Community NI, said thousands of people officially become homeless every month - the worst figures in the UK.

"Far worse than that are our levels of ‘hidden homeless'," he said.

"Recent robust and independent research showed that there could be as many as 136,000 ‘hidden' homeless adults in Northern Ireland.

"We are in a homelessness crisis and with funding cuts, political stalemate and the spectre of welfare reform looming it's highly likely to get worse. It's scandalous that we as a society are failing so many people.”

The Simon Community can be contacted on the freephone number 0800 171 2222.

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