Stormont to act after increase in homeless deaths

 A campaign to raise awareness around homelessness in Northern Ireland gathered pace earlier this year with the death of five people on the streets of Belfast within the space of two months. Following pressure, Stormont has now initiated plans for a new strategy to tackle homelessness.

Between January and March this year, 4,350 households across Northern Ireland presented as homeless to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE). That figure is relatively small compared to the estimated 20,000 households that presented themselves over the year. While there is no exact figure on the amount of people that are deemed homeless in Northern Ireland, there are currently almost 40,000 people on the social housing waited list.

What is being made clear by those campaigning for a greater awareness of the volume of homelessness within Northern Ireland is that the varying different circumstances surrounding homelessness, make it difficult to categorise and so virtually impossible to set out in hard figures. A recent statistic by Homeless Aware, one of the many outreach groups established following a number of homeless deaths on the streets of Belfast, estimated that on average seven people sleep rough in Belfast alone every night.

Earlier this year, the death of five homeless people shone a light on campaigns that have long been under way to change how the Stormont Executive tackles homelessness. Those campaigners, will have been cautiously optimistic when in July, the new Minister for Communities, Paul Givan, announced the development of a new strategy, aimed at ending long-term homelessness and rough sleeping in Northern Ireland by 2020.

Responding to a question posed by Sinn Féin MLA Fra McCann, the newly appointed Minister said an evaluation of the NIHE’s homelessness strategy, the lead agency for responding to homelessness in Northern Ireland, was underway.

“The Housing Executive’s strategic approach to dealing with Homelessness is the current Homelessness Strategy 2012-17 which has an overall vision of eliminating long-term homelessness and rough sleeping by 2020 and focuses on prevention and early intervention,” he said.

The Housing Executive has confirmed that an evaluation of the existing Homelessness Strategy has been commissioned. The feedback from the evaluation will inform the development of a new strategy due to be published in April next year.”

Givan added that following the deaths in Belfast, the then Social Development Minister, Mervyn Storey, had established an inter-Ministerial group to tackle rough sleeping in Belfast and that a resulting action plan was already being implemented and due to be completed in March 2017.

However, homelessness campaigners called on the Executive to do more and following a summit of leading charities, and the Simon Community have now published their response to the draft Programme for Government, calling for the inclusion of homelessness as a standalone issue within the final document. Key areas they address call for the PfG to:

  • Contain a longer term commitment to ending homelessness in Northern Ireland, clearly referenced in an additional indicator;
  • Have explicit and measurable targets set to end homelessness by 2021 with the right preventions, responses and solutions;
  • Instruct the development and delivery of a properly resourced, time-bound inter-departmental government strategy with the clear priority to end homelessness;
  • Create a new role of a Homeless ‘Champion’ with authority to operate cross-departmentally.

A Housing Executive spokesperson said: “As we have statutory responsibility to publish a new homelessness strategy by April 2017, the Housing Executive has commissioned an independent evaluation of the current strategy, 2012–17. The purpose of this evaluation is to identify the key successes and challenges faced in order to inform the development of the new homelessness strategy.

“A team of researchers has been appointed to carry out the project and work is underway. The Methodology for the Evaluation will include literature reviews, data analysis and stakeholder interviews.”

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