Simon Community NI’s Chief Executive Jim Dennison discusses the state of homelessness in Northern Ireland, innovative projects launched during the charity’s 50th year and the role Stormont must play in stopping a homelessness disaster.
From a handful of volunteers delivering soup to rough sleepers on the streets of Belfast, Simon Community NI has come a long way since it was established in 1971. Now with a workforce of over 380 passionate individuals, Northern Ireland’s leading and longest running homelessness charity currently supports up to 636 marginalised people each day across 26 accommodation projects and 13 community support services. Taking up the role of Chief Executive in 2014, Jim Dennison, a housing and community relations professional of over 20 years has witnessed the organisation adapt to an ever-evolving homelessness crisis.
“Acknowledging 50 years of providing homelessness shelter and support to our society’s most vulnerable is a massive achievement but a bittersweet milestone. On the one hand, we are extremely proud of the staff, volunteers and supporters who have helped us be there for those who needed our support over the years. However, on the other hand, we’re reluctant to refer to it as a celebration as the anniversary sadly highlights the fact that homelessness has been encouraged to run rampant throughout Northern Ireland for decades thanks to government failings, under resourcing, and siloed tactics.
“Isn’t it a shame that each year, thousands of people come through our doors at their lowest with nowhere else to turn to? And that on average around 1,000 households present as homelessness to the Housing Executive each month with over 40,000 sitting on social housing waiting lists for homes that may never come? And sadly, these figures don’t even include the 100,000 households estimated to be experiencing hidden homelessness. We are on the cusp of a homelessness disaster in Northern Ireland and I am worried decision makers are still thinking a temporary bandage is the solution.”
The Covid catalyst
Dennison details that the Covid pandemic, whilst a challenging and worrying time for staff and clients at the charity, acted as a catalyst that brought about better partnership working, removed the constraints of bureaucracy and saw the homelessness sector, and Simon Community, advance at a speed and efficiency not witnessed in his eight years as Chief Executive.
“Rounding off our fourth decade with a global pandemic wasn’t ideal but we got through it. I saw colleagues, clients, funders, and partners committed to one thing, ensuring everyone in the country was in a safe and secure place to weather the storm. And as we began working around the new normal, the charity was able to explore newer ways to respond to and end homelessness.
“Launching the charity’s 50th anniversary at Stormont in October 2021, we used the high-profile event to showcase the charity’s future commitment to growing awareness, creating change, and responding to need. To date, we have launched bespoke homelessness services, welcomed new members to our ever-growing teams, lobbied for stronger government commitment, and released substantial research into Hidden Homelessness.”
At a time when growth for many organisations witnessed a pause, Simon Community entered its 50th year with the launch of a Women’s Advocacy project, roll-out of a Housing First for Youth service but most notably, the commitment from the charity to buy as well as manage 50 homes for people who are homeless over the next two years. The charity already has purchased six homes with a seventh on the horizon.
“Our temporary accommodation services run at full occupancy and for every bed we have, we could fill it five times over such is the demand. Unfortunately, many of our clients are ready and able to live independently but are in limbo with few social home building projects in the pipeline and unaffordable private rents across the market. This is where Creating Homes can help by providing long-term move on homes in communities where people can flourish.”
Stormont must act
Ahead of this year’s Assembly elections, the charity met with representatives from across the major parties to lobby for three Programme for Government asks that will bring about meaningful change:
- the delivery of a Homelessness Co-operation Bill to put inter-departmental co-operation to ending homelessness on a legislative footing for the Departments for Communities, Education, Health and Justice and require them to report annually to the Assembly;
2. the delivery of properly resourced, multiyear budgets for homelessness support services to facilitate long term funding decisions and to allocate needs assessed funding to flagship projects such as the Supporting People programme; and
3. increased housing supply through a combination of public asset initiatives, refurbishing vacant properties, a fully supported NIHE build programme, and incentivising private rented sector use.
“While we exist, Simon Community will always be a champion for the people we directly or indirectly support. You simply need to look at the most recent figures on homeless deaths here in Northern Ireland — 217 people over 12 months dying while experiencing homelessness. If one person on our roads died every other day, there would be a huge public outcry, a media campaign, resources across departments thrown at it. It’s this inequality that drives our charity. We do, and will continue to, ensure everyone experiencing homelessness is given a voice and treated with the dignity and support they are entitled to.”
Partner with Simon Community in its 50th year by visiting simoncommunity.org