Big Sleep Out will help fund critical services to homeless and vulnerable
AROUND 50,000 people in 50 countries are set to sleep out this Saturday night to raise money for homeless and displaced people throughout the world. Funds raised in The World's Big Sleep Out in Belfast and Dublin will be donated to cross-border charity Depaul. Marie Louise McConville visited one of its projects in west Belfast where some families are preparing for Christmas in hostel accommodation
IN January this year, Poleglass mother Rachel Hanna (22) found herself without a home.
Having been in private rental accommodation, her landlord had informed her that she would have to find somewhere else to live as she needed to move back into the house.
With a three-year-old son to look after, the single mother immediately began looking for a new home but found she was not in a position to pay the £1,000 up-front deposit and rent.
"I had nowhere to go," she said.
"My anxiety and depression was really bad.
"I went to the doctor's trying to get help. I was worried for my child."
With no other option, she presented herself as homeless to the Housing Executive who moved to try to find her a new home.
For the next three months, Rachel and her young son Kyle were forced to "sofa surf" and rely on the kindness of friends to keep a roof over their heads.
In April, she was told a place for her had been found at Cloverhill on the Stewartstown Road.
Opened by the Depaul charity in 2008, Cloverhill is a family-based supported living project which offers 18 self-contained apartments, each with their own bathroom, living/dining room and kitchen.
There are also communal spaces including two lounges, large indoor and outdoor play areas, a laundry room and an arts and crafts room.
Once living in Cloverhill, each family has a dedicated key worker who helps identify areas of need. A support plan can cover many issues but the focus is always to get the family moved to permanent accommodation of their choice as quickly as possible.
Residents can also avail of workshops on a weekly basis on health and nutrition, can take up knitting or learn baking, and even French lessons are now on offer.
Depaul’s dedicated child support worker also sets aside one-to-one time for children who are struggling to come to terms with great the upheaval that homelessness has in their lives.
Arriving at Cloverhill, Rachel said she was "grateful to have a roof over my head", although it was a big change initially.
"It has had its ups and downs," she said.
"It's his (Kyle's) first time living in a flat. It really upset his routine. He kept asking when we were going home. He struggled really to settle."
However, she said the support she has received from staff has "massively helped me with my depression and anxiety and we have the key workers to have a wee chat with. They have helped Kyle interact with other kids".
Looking towards Christmas, Rachel said she is "nervous" this year.
"Last year I was in my own home with him," she said.
"I never in a million years thought I would be in this position."
In the build-up to Christmas, the 18 adults and 25 children living at Cloverhill will be invited to make decorations and take part in day trips.
While some residents choose to go out to the homes of family and friends for Christmas dinner, others stay and if they want to cook in their own flat, staff at Cloverhill with help.
Any who don't want to cook their own dinner will be invited to a communal meal in the common room.
Rachel said she would lost without Cloverhill.
"I am very grateful for it and for everything they have done for me and my son," she said.
"The staff are amazing for what they do every day. Without it, I'd be on the streets or sleeping in a car."
Cloverhill is just one of 29 services Depaul operates around Ireland.
Having been established in 2002 in the Republic and in 2005 in Northern Ireland as a direct response to helping those with the most complex needs in society, the charity helped more than 4,000 people experiencing homelessness last year and provided over 600 bed spaces each night.
North of the border, the charity - which is part of an international organisation - operates nine services including four supported housing projects while the rest are outreach services, all of which can help families, individuals and couples and also those who have addiction issues and housing issues.
Deirdre Canavan, interim director for services for Depaul in Northern Ireland, said while it receives funding, it is thanks to donations raised through events such as The World's Big Sleep Out that it can continue to help those who find themselves in vulnerable positions.
"The majority of funding comes through the (Department for Communities) Supporting People fund," she said.
"As everyone knows, that funding has been ring-fenced, it has not increased in 10 years.
"We have a wonderful fundraising department and we have very loyal donors who support us regularly. We also get funding from the Public Health Agency and Children and In Need".
Deirdre urged people to support the sleep-out fundraiser.
"The Big Sleep Out is an opportunity to be part of global activity and be in solidarity with 50 other countries around the world to raise awareness of homelessness," she said.
"It could be any of us. It's about providing as much support to those individuals.
"People can support us through the Big Sleep Out. The funding will then come to Depaul Northern Ireland services.
"It's in the grounds of Stormont on December 7 and we would really welcome the public support. You can join us through registering at www.bigsleeout.com or you can donate online or support some of us who are sleeping out and fundraising.
"We have music (and) vendors providing hot food. It will be a lovely evening and it's for a great cause and it's great for Northern Ireland to be part of something wider than just here."
She added: "It enables Depaul to deliver the services that individuals need and that's critical.
"The challenges we are facing at the moment with the introduction of welfare reform and the cost of living, homelessness is something that can impact on us at any time. We want to be in a position to be able to respond to the need of people".
WHEN Natasha Kelly's benefits were cut, she found herself with nowhere to live.
The mother-of-one, who is originally from Draperstown in Co Derry, was forced to present herself as homeless to the Housing Executive.
The 24-year-old, who is bi-polar and suffers from anxiety, had to leave her private rental home in March 2018 following a benefits assessment which left her unable to afford her rent.
"I wasn't able to pay for it any more and was told I had to leave," she said.
"It was really hard. I was sofa-surfing with a two-year-old.
"As soon as I had handed my keys in, I went to the Housing Executive and got put down as homeless".
For six months, Natasha and her son Theo, now aged four, moved around among friends in a bid to keep a roof over their heads.
In September 2018 she moved into Cloverhill in west Belfast.
"It was nothing like I was expecting," she said.
"It was like a hotel. I love it here.
"When I moved in here my wee boy didn't have much speech and the volunteers worked with Theo, he has come on.
"It has been absolutely amazing and the support I get is amazing. I just wish there were more flats."
Natasha, who is expecting her second child at the end of January, said she is looking forward to Christmas.
"The flat is my home," she said.
"I put my Christmas tree up. Santa is also able to leave the toys. I cooked my own dinner last year."
Ciara Magee will also be spending her first Christmas in hostel accommodation at Cloverhill.
The 20-year-old, who is originally from Andersonstown, lives in the supported housing complex with her three-month-old son Jacob.
Having lived in Scotland for nine years with her mother Sheila, Ciara was forced to move back to Belfast when she died of cancer in 2013.
Despite returning to school, Ciara said family relations were tense after she "distanced herself" and after falling pregnant, she was in need of somewhere to live.
However, she said taking responsibility for herself and Jacob has helped her mature.
She moved into Cloverhill in August just days after giving birth to her first child.
"It was scary but it was definitely the right thing," she said.
"I was lucky I was given the independence.
"We are all in the same boat. We are never really alone. You can ask the stupid questions.
"My maturity levels have gone up. I will ask for help. I used to be really anxious.
"I can come down to the common room and knit. I have started to come out of my shell here."
Ciara, who has thought about volunteering with Depaul in the future, said Cloverhill and its support network has really helped her.
"It is a big difference," she said.
"I don't know where I would be. This has saved me. It's given me the safety and security that I had been crying out for and also pushing away. It has given me a purpose."
.:: For further information about the Big Sleep Out see www.bigsleepout.com/join-a-sleep-out/belfast