We urgently need political leadership if we are to reduce or prevent homelessness
The recent deaths of several people who were experiencing homelessness in Belfast is nothing short of a tragedy. Every one of these individuals mattered. They were someone’s child, grandchild, brother, and friend. They will have left behind loved ones, as well as those who cared for them in our sector.
Numerous factors will have contributed to the situation they found themselves in, perhaps stretching back to childhood. There may have been many possible points at which critical interventions could have made all the difference.
No one chooses to become reliant on substances or chooses to be homeless. These individuals have been let down by society. The blunt reality is that too many men and women experiencing homelessness have lost their lives in similar circumstances in recent decades. It does not have to be this way. Collectively, we have to find better ways forward to prevent other families losing their loved ones.
As the representative body for the homelessness sector, Homeless Connect know that many more deaths have been prevented by the remarkable work of deeply committed staff in the homelessness sector and on the part of statutory agencies such as the Housing Executive and health services. Even with this vital and literally life-saving work, however, too many people are finding themselves in situations where their lives are in danger.
Homelessness, especially chronic homelessness involving substance use, is not a simple problem to solve. As with any complex problem, a variety of different measures need to be enacted to bring about the change we need to see.
These include the expansion of policies such as ‘Housing First,’ an evidence-based approach focused on supporting individuals experiencing homelessness who have high support needs; access to health interventions at the right time and in the right place; effective interventions in childhood and at school to seek to prevent homelessness early in life; building more affordable and accessible housing; and joined up working between statutory agencies and government departments to ensure people in this situation have the support they need.
These are only a handful of the kind of changes we need to see. However, for any meaningful changes to be made to support people experiencing chronic homelessness, long-term planning and investment are required. For this to happen, we need fully functioning and stable political institutions ready to take on the serious challenges that we face.
The political situation surrounding the devolved institutions has major consequences in the real world. Executive Departments, statutory bodies and third-sector organisations funded through the Executive are unable to properly plan for the future. Without any kind of budget, let alone a long-term budget, departments and statutory agencies cannot plan service provision properly.
To take just one example, the NI Housing Executive is the body charged with responding to homelessness here. In March, working closely with the homelessness sector, they produced a new strategy for the next five years to respond to homelessness. It provides a roadmap for positive progressive change, which if properly implemented would in time lead to real results. However, the current budgetary situation places the Housing Executive in the invidious position of lurching from quarter to quarter, not knowing what its budgetary position will be beyond the short term.
Effective implementation of the homelessness strategy is virtually impossible to achieve without budgetary certainty. The Housing Executive is consequently forced into a reactive posture, responding to homelessness after it happens, rather than seeking to prevent it. Similar difficulties face a whole range of key public services providing vital support.
Without real and meaningful change, more people experiencing homelessness and struggling with addictions will lose their lives. The machinations around the NI Executive are not a game. The ongoing stasis is having devastating real-world consequences. The stakes are high. We urgently need political leadership. For the sake of those experiencing homelessness and the sector seeking to support them, I hope we get it soon.
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