If you couldn’t pay your rent or mortgage for a few months and didn’t have a family support network…very quickly you could find yourself struggling.
Interview with Kieran Hughes, The Welcome Organisation.
In recent months we have noticed an increase in the number of homeless people seeking our services. With the cost of living crisis people are finding it harder to make ends meet.
The NI Housing Executive figures show that there has been a rise in the number of people becoming homeless due to the loss of rental accommodation. It is a very obvious and tangible aspect of how the most vulnerable people in society are currently impacted by the cost of living crisis.
People are facing pressures to retain their own tenancies.
The Welcome Organisation was set up in 1997.
The local community wanted to do something to help people affected by homelessness in the city so they set up a very small drop-in centre. Run by volunteers, it was a place where people could have a cup of tea and a sandwich, and a bit of a chat for a couple of hours a day.
In the past 25 years we have grown and developed with more focused services and support for people affected by homelessness.
The Welcome Organisation has an ethos which is: high tolerance, low threshold. We try to accept anyone irrespective of complex needs or backgrounds.
Many people who use the service have quite severe addictions.
We work closely with the drug outreach team or Dunlewey Addiction Services or the Belfast Inclusion Health Service who are based next door. That’s a team of NHS nurses whose job is to provide healthcare for people who are homeless so we can refer people into a GP.
We have been here in Townsend St for over 10 years.
It used to be a day-care centre so it was well set up for us with an open space, toilets, kitchen area, dining area. It also has space for offices and meeting areas and is close to Belfast city centre, so it’s a good location.
The Drop-In Centre is one of the key services that we provide.
The centre opens at 8 am. Generally from 8-10am its for people who have been sleeping rough on the streets.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at set times, with tea and coffee served all day. Breakfast will be something like cornflakes and toast.. or a boiled egg. Lunch will be more substantial like meat, veg, potatoes….rice or whatever. The evening meal is something similar.
We make 120 meals a day.
Here, we have a laundry facility.. showers… toilets…internet access… a smoking area… a television. So, all those basic needs are met. But, above and beyond that we also provide support for people in terms of advice around housing and benefits, and drug and alcohol addiction.
From 10am onwards it’s for anyone affected by homelessness – that is, hidden homelessness.. sofa-surfing…living in hostels or temporary accommodation. There are many forms of hidden homelessness where people still need help.
And we provide that help.
It’s self-referral. For someone who is coming for the first time we will sit them down to chat about why they are coming to seek our services so we can build up the best support for them that we can.
We provide lockers for people who are sleeping rough on the streets where they can store their belongings. Here, they can come in and they can access their things.. their clothes.. coats.. sleeping bags. They can use our centre as an address.
On any day we could have between 40 up to 80 people in the centre. In a 3 month period we could see over 650 people.
It’s a much needed service.
Meeting people’s basic needs is really important, but equally important is helping people on their journey out of homelessness, and helping them source accommodation.
With the pandemic our service was basically turned upside down overnight.
The Drop-in Centre closed in late March 2020 and very quickly we had to make a lot of adaptations to our services.
There was a big push at the start of the pandemic with ourselves, the Housing Executive and other agencies to try and get everyone sleeping rough on the streets into some form of temporary accommodation. That could be…hotels, B&B’s or student accommodation.
Right throughout the pandemic our Street Outreach Team remained on the streets.
By and large by the end of April 2020 there was no-one sleeping rough in Belfast.
Annsgate is our crisis accommodation for extremely vulnerable women – women who would otherwise spend the night on the streets. During the pandemic we made it a 24 hour hostel/home. With social distancing we had to reduce the number of beds from 10 to 5.
In the pandemic people still needed support in their temporary or emergency accommodation and so we developed a mobile drop-in centre. We still prepared 120 meals a day at the Centre to take out to people living in temporary accommodation. We also collected and delivered back their laundry.
Our job is to make sure that once someone gets a place to live they can maintain that tenancy, and not fall into being homeless again. That is something we have seen happen.
Our Floating Support service is for people who have been homeless, but now have a place to live. We like to keep in touch with them.
During the pandemic that became slightly more difficult because we couldn’t go into their homes. We managed to get some short-term grants to allow us to buy mobile phones for people who were in Floating Support. That helped to ensure those lines of communication remained open.
It’s great to be able to go and see people in their homes now.
For some of our Floating Support clients it’s really about trying to make that place feel like ‘their own’ place; that they are proud of, look after and retain.
You know yourself… an empty room, an empty shell, a hard chair… it doesn’t feel like a home. But, if you have soft furnishings a television.. pictures on the wall.. it can make a huge difference to someone retaining their tenancy – along with all the other support that is needed.
We used to upcycle old furniture and give it out to people through the Floating Support Service and sell on other items. Unfortunately, with the pandemic the shop that sold some of the other items saw footfall drop to zero and it wasn’t generating what it needed to keep it going. So, we don’t have that project any more.
There are other organisations that we work with Habitat For Humanity have helped us in the past, they decorate rooms or whatever is needed.
We want our clients to be involved as much as possible and that is part of our ethos.
Our new service Catherine House, opened in March (2023)
It is a 10 bedroomed supported living accommodation for women who have been chronically homeless but are on that next stage on their journey out of homelessness.
At Catherine House women can find support to continue on that journey of living independently.
There is a therapeutic ethos behind Catherine House.
We applied Trauma Informed Interior Design so that was about creating spaces that were calming and conducive to recovery and peaceful.. It’s about the use of colours, softened shapes… The rooms are pastel colours with elements symbolising things like.. sunlight..the sea.. calming experiences.
It was an existing building, an empty shell, so all the rooms were a blank canvas for us. It was a great opportunity to make it a really special place for the women who use the service.
The funding for Catherine House came from the Housing Executive but they very much gave us a blank canvas to get on with it. Our team had a very clear idea what we wanted Catherine House to look like. We sourced the Trauma Informed Designer, the painters, decorators – that’s all through us.
Clients might stay there for longer periods. It varies. Catherine House is very much ‘your space’ to continue on your journey out of homelessness.
We have counsellors coming in and people helping advice on with budgeting… cooking… and gardening… We have a gardening project that we are getting up and running. There’s a whole range of support.
‘Their’ room is theirs, but they share the facilities.. living area.. kitchen.. shared yard.
We are in the process of converting the yard and the clients are very much part of that. We made the furniture and the women who use the service are in the process of sanding it down and making it their own. It’s important for it to be client-led.
In Belfast there is a lack of female-specific accommodation, so it is something that was very much needed.
Catherine House is a very different model to Annsgate. Women will stay there for longer and will have that therapeutic wrap-around Trauma Informed support on their journey.
Ultimately, the aim is that they will move on to their own place.
The Housing First Model in the homelessness sector is a world renowned model of homeless support. Housing First is about getting the space for someone to live first, and building everything else around that.
Finland uses the Housing First model. It’s seen as a success story trying to end homelessness. Catherine House takes elements of that. It’s a place for women to call ‘home’ and build their lives around that.
Catherine House and our Floating Support service is part of the Welcome Organisation’s ‘street to home journey’.
Our Street Outreach team and Drop-In Centre will find people in need. Then through our Floating Support Service the Welcome Organisation helps people on their journey out of homelessness.
Our funding from the Housing Executive has only had one increase in the last 15 years. In real terms for us, that is a cut.
We generate £250,000 every year ourselves through fund raising but the cost of fuel, gas, electricity has all gone up – and our funding hasn’t.
That is the challenge we are facing at the moment.
We don’t, for example, get funding for sleeping bags – or our Mobile Health Unit.
Our Mobile Health Unit is a potentially life-saving service.
In the UK, the life expectancy of people for someone who spent time sleeping rough on the streets is around the mid to late forties.
You can see the health impact it has on people.
If for whatever reason, someone may not want to come to the Inclusion Health service Drop-In Centre, we can still reach them out on the streets.
We converted a large van with heat and light and hot and cold water a fridge for medications… a waiting room.. a consultation room. We use it to bring homeless health care onto the streets alongside the homeless nursing team, from the Belfast Inclusion Health Service.
Every Wednesday and Thursday we are in the Western Trust working with the Homeless Nursing Team in Derry. There will be a drop-in clinic for people to have general healthcare check. We do blood and Virus tests. There’s been a podiatry clinic and we have been able to provide flu vaccines and Covid boosters during the pandemic, as well as referrals into other services.
It costs about £50,000 each year to keep the Mobile Health Unit running.
But, it is about breaking down barriers for homeless people so they can access primary health care.
There’s no doubt that the ‘Troubles’ is a factor in homelessness here.
It’s well known that Post Traumatic Stress has affected many people as a result of the ‘Troubles’. Here in Northern Ireland we still have divided communities and that doesn’t help.
One cause of homelessness is when people have been moved on from their home because of threats or whatever. But it’s not the single cause of homelessness. There can be lots of other things that contribute to people becoming homeless.
For many months a family, a young man and his parents, lived in their car outside our Drop-In Centre. They have since moved on and the young man is now in hi sown accommodation and employment.
Because of the support he received, he recently set up a direct debit donation to the Welcome Organisation – which is a great boost for us.
The Street Outreach team are on the streets from 7pm until 3am the next morning.
There may be cases out we already know of people sleeping rough. We also receive calls from members of the public and we work closely with the blue light services.
If you see someone you are concerned about you can all our Street Outreach service. Tel: 0789493 104 ( 7am-2am) Or: 07851246814 ( 2pm-2am)
If someone is unresponsive and you are concerned about their well-being you should phone an ambulance as normal.
Our aim is to not having anyone sleeping rough on the streets.
If we find someone sleeping rough we work with them and the HE to source a bed for the next night. It doesn’t always work that way. But that’s what we aim to do.
Christmas is a really important time at the Welcome Organisation Drop-In Centre.
It will be ‘home’ for a lot of people on Christmas day.
We put the decorations and tree and have a proper Christmas dinner.. turkey.. ham… and all the trimmings. We put gift parcels together for people who use the service – 250 gift parcels every year. Perhaps a new toiletry set.. a box of chocolates.. a voucher for Primark or a coffee shop …a new hat and gloves… a sleeping bag. Or, maybe a more personal gift.
We have groups of volunteers who come in for a morning or afternoon to help us sort out the donations, gift parcels and hampers and we distribute those gifts on Christmas day or throughout the Christmas period.
Through our Floating Support Service we put together gift hampers and we deliver those out to people in their homes.
All our services continue as normal throughout the Christmas period.
Christmas can be a very challenging time – for a lot of people – but particularly people who are homeless.
It can make a huge difference if, over the Christmas period, that’s the only gift you receive… or the only Christmas meal.
We tend to receive a lot of our donations at Christmas time. I suppose homelessness is in people’s consciousness at Christmas time – although it’s 365 days a year.
It’s July today…it’s absolutely pouring down. You can imagine.. tonight on the streets… it would be just as difficult as in the middle of January.
The Welcome Organisation
Unit 26, 28 Townsend St.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Tel: +44 (28) 9024 0424