This morning I encountered a young homeless man by the name of Felix on the streets of Belfast City Centre. It was particularly biting this morning and I took a moment to speak to him and buy him a hot drink. I asked him how He came to be on the street by himself and he told me his name was Felix, that he had been on and off the streets for six years and that he was 20 years old.
Felix took the time to speak to me and tell me that he has been unable to reintegrate with his family due to personal reasons and that due to complications with social welfare he had been unable to claim a bed in a hostel. I asked him if he had been in touch with any organisations and he simply told me that he had been in touch with all of them. “Some of them can help and some of them won’t because I had a drugs problem.”
I asked Felix about how he had been surviving on the streets and he told me that “It’s hard. People don’t seem to understand that.” He was surrounded by his few belongings including a cup full of loose change which he alleged had often been taken off him by the PSNI as it was “illegally sourced income.” I cannot prove this but I will be following this up with the PSNI and at this juncture I have no reason to disbelieve him. He told me that the one thing he had shocked him in the 8 months he has been homeless is the generosity of the people on the street. When I visited him again at lunch I noticed that he was wearing a new pair of gloves that had been given to him by the Welcome Organisation outreach service and a hot meal that had been donated by a passer by. When I asked him if he had ever received any hassle from people he told me “all the time.”
“People forget I’m a person because I sit here and don’t have a bed or money or clean clothes. I’m still a person.”
Two weeks ago I met with Paula of the Welcome Organisation with a view to working with them as a volunteer and the statistics concerning homelessness in Belfast was pretty shocking. There are roughly 11 people sleeping rough in Belfast regularly, a number that she regarded as too high and rightly so. With temperatures plummeting this winter and with so many people sleeping rough Paula told those of us who had met with her that the number was growing and told us “People can become homeless in the blink of an eye. When you are homeless you aren’t Catholic or Protestant or black or white or gay or straight. You’re homeless and your identity doesn’t matter when you don’t have somewhere to sleep.”
It breaks my heart that this is still such an issue in 2013 and in a City that has been overtaken with debates about flags, murals and parades that seem so insignifant and trivial when talking to people like Felix. I would encourage everyone who is able to contact the Simon community, Welcome Organisation and local homeless charities and outreach services such as the Trussell Trust or local food banks and donate, volunteer and raise awareness of this problem. The fact that in 2013 we cannot exert the resources necessary to protect the vulnerable and the young is a national shame and we should all be working to change it.