I meet with Welcome Organisation CEO Sandra Moore in a room stacked from floor to almost ceiling of sleeping bags, which I’m told, have been donated by the Marine Society and Sea Cadets. Most, if not all, of these will be gone over the coming nights to those sleeping rough in the city centre.

Offering tea and coffee on tap from 8am until 10pm at their Townsend Street HQ, Sandra told the Andersonstown News that the need for their service is very much “365 days a year”.

“We have service users coming to us with various needs, whether it’s clothes, a cup of tea or somewhere to have a bit of refuge. We do make targeted appeals throughout the year via our Facebook page and we do have people ringing to ask is there anything in particular we need. We always need decent trainers, sturdy, durable. We can’t hold out to jeans, in smaller sizes of waist, new underwear on which there is a massive demand all year round, socks and toiletries.

“We can’t hold out to coffee, tea, sugar, washing powder, toilet roll, those things make a big difference to us,” she said.

“We would ask for those who are donating that there is a reasonable life left in the items they want to give. We always have a need for sleeping bags and we don’t distribute tents on the streets as they would pose a danger.”

Established 20 years ago, the Welcome Organisation has provided a vital shelter for those sleeping rough and who are experiencing homelessness. Sandra spoke of how the need for the service has “changed dramatically” in that time.

“We are dealing with a greater number of people, people with more significant issues, drug, alcohol, mental health, not all the people we work with do, its some, not all. What we are finding is that the age profile of those seeking the service is much younger, and there are more women coming to the Organisation. When I came 13 years ago we had six women in service. Now a third of our service users are female.”

She continued: “We are working with homelessness in its most chronic form. We can’t forget that there is hidden homelessness. By that I mean people sleeping on sofas, moving from pillar to post. Nobody has a handle on that. One in 18 people within their life in Northern Ireland will experience homelessness. Life expectancy of someone who has had periods of continuous homelessness is 39 for a woman and 43 for a man.”

Sandra said that currently those service users at the centre are predominantly young males from North and West Belfast.
As 2019 comes to a close, Sandra said that the issue of homelessness is facing a constant struggle in the New Year.
“All services are facing pressure, lack of mental health services, lack of drug and alcohol support service and not just in Belfast, right across the North. We do not have detox or rehab facilities here, what services are there, due to severe pressures, aren’t responsive enough. We are trying to bridge that gap. It’s quite evident right across the city that there is a growing drug problem, there is a real need for education in communities.

“People have to bear in mind that there is a back story to each and every person who is homeless. This is someone’s son, somebody’s daughter. Nobody has ever set out on that path. What child do you ask and they say ‘I want to be ill’, ‘I want to be struggling with addiction’, ‘I want to be homeless’. It’s not an aspiration but unfortunately it’s were we are. In Belfast I think we have a chance to not end up like Dublin, like London, the big cities. We still have a chance of doing something to contain it, but the agencies need to work together.”

“No-one knows what the budget is for Ireland next year. How can you possibly plan while we have no minister for finance or minster for health? We, along with others, are highly dependent on the good will of the public, we couldn’t survive without the public,” she said. “I’ve been here 13 years and every year I am still overwhelmed by the generosity of people, people are very kind, however homelessness is an issue 365 days of the year.”

Sandra said the levels of increased poverty within households; job losses and the impact of Universal Credit are contributing factors to homelessness.

“Regardless of whatever way Brexit goes, the economy is shrinking again, there is higher unemployment.

“As my grandmother always said ‘when poverty comes in the door, love goes out the window’. We see so many times relationships breaking down because of the stresses of poverty linked to job losses. Statistics show that children growing up in poverty that their life chances are much worse. Someone who experiences homelessness as a child is much more likely to experience it as an adult – we need more preventive services going forward.”

With the Organisation’s core team of staff, Sandra said that they couldn’t provide their service without their “60 volunteers”.

“We had 80 for Christmas dinner last year and so far we have wrapped over 200 Christmas presents, 120 of those bespoke for our regular users. We are inundated with people wanting to volunteer with us on Christmas Day – it’s a lovely day but it’s a hard day for a lot of people as you can imagine. We try to keep familiar faces around for the people that are coming in.

“We just want to thank everyone for their continued support, we couldn’t do our work without it. We have a fantastic team of staff, of volunteers and the support of the public and the community. All I would ask is that people continue to be kind. That’s all I ask, is for people to be kind to those on the street. We don’t always know the story of how or why it has come to that.”

For more information on the Welcome Organisation or to donate visit www.homelessbelfast.org