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The New Normal: 'We've seen a massive increase in homelessness'

Lockdown has seen an increase in homelessness and food poverty in Belfast. Claire Simpson speaks to Paul McCusker, co-ordinator of St Patrick's soup kitchen in Belfast, about fears that the end of the government's furlough scheme will make it harder for families to make ends meet.

Paul McCusker, co-founder of St Patrick's Soup Kitchen. Picture by Matt Bohill

“There are people we go to who haven’t eaten in days, people in real desperate situations.”

St Patrick’s soup kitchen on Donegall Street has been offering hot food and support to homeless people in Belfast since April 2017.

But Paul McCusker, who co-founded the kitchen, said even he could not have predicted the huge rise in demand during lockdown.

“We’ve seen a massive increase in numbers,” he said.

“Over the weekend we were engaging with over 200 people - people who were homeless, people in the community who required food or support."

READ MORE: The New Normal: Theatre professionals on the 'devastating' impact of lockdown

Initially open for two nights a week, the service upped to four nights during lockdown.

Now named the People's Kitchen Belfast, from today it will operate seven days a week between 7am and 5pm from the Farset centre on Springfield Road in west Belfast.

Speaking before the move, he said: “On Saturday a lady came with her partner. Her partner wouldn’t get out of the car, he was so embarrassed, but she told us she had no money for food and she had a four-year-old child. They were starving. We gave them hot food and a food parcel. And we’ll be linking up with them again this week to provide ongoing support."

The scheme has seen "double the number of members that we had before lockdown", Mr McCusker said.

He added: “We spent a lot of time on the streets (with homeless people) but we were also part of the response in north Belfast in bringing people hot food and food parcels.

“Throughout lockdown we stepped up our services because a lot of other places were shutting down. People struggled really badly. Some people had no food, some had no money for electricity or gas. We supported people financially to heat their homes.”

Paul McCusker is an SDLP councillor

Mr McCusker, an SDLP councillor and deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast, said the easing of coronavirus restrictions has seen more homeless people on our streets and greater overall demand for help.

He raised concerns of more job losses and greater food poverty when the government’s furlough scheme stops at the end of October.

“There are people we go to who haven’t eaten in days, people in real desperate situations. Our worry is that will continue and families will continue to struggle,” he said.

Mr McCusker said localised plans need to be set up.

“When furlough ends more people will be plunged into poverty and homelessness,” he said.

“At the minute it’s all crisis response, which is good, but we need a longer-term view to support all those who need it.”

Mr McCusker said he has already seen a rise in homelessness during the pandemic.

“We’re seeing a lot more younger people present as homeless,” he said.

“We’re supporting a lot of people who have difficulty trying to make ends meet because of a lack of employment.

“In terms of universal credit, people have to wait five or six weeks for an assessment period. You can get an up-front payment but then you have to pay it back so people are being put into debt. That has a knock-on effect.

“We are also seeing a significant increase in people experiencing poor mental health.

“People are struggling with a lack of social contact."

Homelessness has increased during the pandemic, a support worker has said

The kitchen supports people of all ages, ranging from very young children to people in their eighties.

Mr McCusker said the kitchen has also helped many refugees, including those who have been formally resettled in Belfast through a British government scheme.

“They get accepted and are put into accommodation but after a time a lot of services are stepped down,” he said.

“Many are on benefits or are not able to cope on the benefits they are on. We have advice workers who help, doing assessments on their income or looking at how we can give them support.”

Kitchen volunteers have also noticed an increase in drug use in Belfast city centre.

“Throughout lockdown drug use did reduce in the city but in recent weeks we have seen increased alcohol use, poly-drug use and heroin use,” he said.

"With lockdown the (drug) supply wasn’t coming through with the increase in police and no one being around too. We did worry about the tolerance of people who use drugs and how they would cope with that.

“It’s the knock-on effect of people not coping well and not getting access to the services that they need.”

He said although many heroin users want help, there is a long waiting list for addicts to be placed on heroin-substitute drugs, including methadone.

Mr McCusker, a who still works as a nurse several days a week, said at the start of lockdown there was a “concerted effort to get people off the streets” but numbers are increasing and suitable beds are hard to come by.

“We are seeing a bit more street activity - people begging or abusing drugs on the street or rough sleepers,” he said.

"There are still quite low numbers but there’s ongoing work to getting people off the street.”

He said it was fortunate that there were no coronavirus clusters amongst the homeless community.

“There were some isolated cases but no major outbreaks. To my knowledge no one from the homeless community died (of Covid) thankfully,” he said.

Mr McCusker said that despite the challenges of lockdown, he was heartened that the public were still willing to donate to the kitchen.

“People have been very good to us with financial donations and also food donations every week and bringing in clothes,” he said.

“We rely very much on the good nature of the public who have been tremendous and very helpful.”

He said one elderly couple who received food parcels from Belfast City Council during lockdown donated surplus food every week.

With increased demand on resources, the kitchen is aiming to take on more volunteers.

“There’s not a day goes by when the phone doesn’t ring,” he said.

- People's Kitchen Belfast needs non-perishable food including tins and packet soups, clothes, shoes and toiletries, which can be dropped off at Farset on Springfield Road

- Anyone in need or interested in volunteering can contact Mr McCusker on mccuskerp@belfastcity.gov.uk or 07467339637

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