Homelessness: ‘Everybody’s dream is to have their own home at Christmas’
By Emily McGarvey
BBC News NI Published 25 December 2021
While many families will celebrate Christmas in the warmth of their own home, for others, that is a luxury they can only dream of this year.
In Northern Ireland, 15,991 households presented as homeless in the past year.
The Salvation Army in north Belfast will house 27 families on Christmas Day at its homeless hostel.
The youngest person staying at the Thorndale Family Centre is a newborn baby who will spend their first Christmas there with their mother.
Many homeless people must choose between “paying for electricity and food or buying their children presents”, support worker Chris Cullens told BBC News NI.
In the run up to Christmas, he has helped families that have been left homeless due to “job losses, the effect of the decrease in Universal Credit, and being unable to pay rent and bills”.
With the cost of living rising and uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Cullens said many people are “only a few pay checks away from that experience ourselves [homelessness]”.
“We’ll have over 100 people in total staying here – small and large families, mothers, fathers and children from babies up to older teenagers,” he added.
“Some families can be quite isolated but they still do have a good support network of families and friends and some aren’t so lucky; refugee families who are away from their own country can feel quite isolated.”
But he said staff will do their best to make it “as special a Christmas as possible” for everyone.
Santa always visits too.
Staff at the centre will then prepare a Christmas dinner with “traditional turkey, ham, potatoes and all the trimmings”.
For others, they will be gathering at food banks across Northern Ireland on Christmas Day.
Gold Davies, from Belfast and Lisburn Community Project, organises the Walk Inn food bank in east Belfast which provides free emergency food for people in need.
In the lead up to Christmas, he said he has seen a huge increase in demand for food due to “financial pressure and job losses from the pandemic”.
Food is collected by volunteers at local supermarkets and banked in the store until it is given to the public who are referred by registered care professionals.
‘I or you can be homeless at any time’
“People who have lost their jobs, waiting on Universal Credit, or their benefits have stopped – there are so many different types of homeless,” Mr Davies said.
The food bank on the Holywood Road will open on Christmas Day with eight volunteers working to give out food to those in need to make a meal at home.
“People put their name on a list and we order in what they want. We have turkey, chicken and anything they need from our freezer,” he said.
“I’ve seen people who are too shy and suffering in silence – some homeless don’t look that way. I or you can be homeless at any time.”
‘Everybody’s dream is to have their own home ‘
Homeless charity Depaul has hostels in Belfast that provide temporary accommodation for families for up to two years.
Marie Dorris is a project group manager for the Cloverhill hostel which houses 18 families in west Belfast and the Mater Dei hostel which houses 13 families in north Belfast.
The charity also helps 45 families in the community who are at risk of homelessness.
“Everybody’s dream is to have their own home at Christmas and being in temporary accommodation for these families is far from ideal,” Ms Dorris said.
She said many families they care for become homeless to due to financial pressures, family or marital breakdowns, domestic violence, overcrowding in unsuitable accommodation or loss to private rental and poor conditions in previous tenancies.
“It’s a strange time. We try to make Christmas as normal for the families we have here,” she said.
“We run activities – we have Santa Claus visiting, Christmas card art competitions, just getting the kids into the Christmas spirit.”
The hostels would normally run an annual Christmas dinner with all the families but to mitigate the risk of Covid-19, they are delivering door-to-door hampers to each self-contained flat.
Depaul has a floating support service to help families resettle after leaving the hostels and Ms Dorris said provision of food for families coming up to Christmas has been excellent.
She said the charity works to make sure “no family is left with nothing over Christmas”.