By Pádraig Ó Meiscill.
“(1) Allocation of Houses.
The Government undertook to ensure that all housing authorities placed need in the forefront in the allocation of houses, and that future housing allocations would be carried out on the basis of a readily-understood and published scheme.”
Not a fortnight ago, on the morning of Friday January 18, the body of Robert James was found huddled in the doorway of a bedlinen shop on Belfast’s High Street. The homeless 27-year-old had perished some time during a night of frost and freezing winds and was discovered dead early next morning by his friend Sheila Forgoine, who has herself been living on the streets for the past three and-a-half years.
“I’m traumatised after what happened,” Sheila said on the day of her friend’s sudden death.
“Not enough is getting done for homeless people. Homeless people need help before we all end up the way Robert ended up.
“We are going to see more deaths on the streets. We need help to get off these streets,” she added.
Last September, ahead of Belfast’s celebrated Culture Night, a 65-year-old pensioner was removed from the small public garden in Writers’ Square facing St Anne’s cathedral in the centre of the city, where she had been sleeping rough for almost a year, and was transported to a park on the town’s eastern outskirts, where she set up camp beneath a tree.
Anne, the pensioner, said at the time: “I was okay where I was, but they said my bags made the place look messy and I understand that. I don’t want any trouble and I don’t want to upset people. I thought Culture Night was on for a week, so I agreed to go.
“They brought me here and carried my bags with me to this tree. I’m alright. It’s sheltered. People have brought me hot drinks which is nice.”
Culture Night management said they feared Anne and her belongings would present a fire hazard.
“While it is recognised that most people that are street homeless usually also have complex support needs, including issues with mental health or addiction, it is now being recognised that appropriate housing is as important in their recovery as medical interventions and other vital support services,” says Belfast housing campaigner Nichola McFall.
That such grotesque ironies are consistently manufactured – and they are manufactured, these are not naturally occurring phenomena – in a nuclear-armed, G7 member state that has the financial might to intervene militarily in countries as far flung as Libya and Syria should shake to its foundations any faith we may have in our system of governance and profit accumulation: that a man can die in the shadow of a bedding warehouse for want of somewhere to sleep is obscene; that a citizen of the city can be evicted from the tiny patch of grass she has attempted to eke out an existence upon so that other citizens can celebrate their collective cultural inheritance without the nuisance of a human fire hazard to avoid is the apartheid of the twilight zone.
And these are the cases that hit the headlines. What does not make the news – or at least not often enough and certainly not high enough up the agenda of urgency and ‘something must be done’ hand-wringing – are the families in emergency accommodation for years on end, the single parents raising three and four children in the spare room of a relative, those not knowing from one night to the next whose sofa it is they will be sleeping on.
As of the end of March 2018, there were 36,198 households on the waiting list for social housing in the North of Ireland, with nearly 11,000 of these families seeking housing in Belfast. Of this number, 24,148 are judged by the Housing Executive to be in ‘housing stress’, which is effectively a state of homelessness. The rate at which new homes are being built is woefully inadequate to address this crisis: in 2015, for example, 542 socially-owned houses were completed throughout the North.
Sectarian discrimination persists
Looked at on a bald statistical level, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about this particular housing crisis. There are hundreds sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin on any given night, while others are paying hundreds to share beds with strangers or sleep on inflatable mattresses on the floor of someone else’s bedroom. Inner-city London has effectively been socially cleansed of its working-class inhabitants, while the rest of England has never recovered from the attack on the social housing stock initiated by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and exacerbated by every British administration in the time since.
However, while it is a self-evident fact that those on the receiving end of the housing crisis in the North of Ireland are, like everywhere else, the poor, the sectarian nature of the northern state dictates that it is the Catholic poor who suffer disproportionately.
Following his visit to the North of Ireland and Britain in November last year, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Professor Philip Alston said in his report that he “was struck by the extent to which communities in the city [Belfast] are still segregated by physical barriers and I was concerned to learn about persistent inequalities along religious lines… Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission found that Catholics experience longest wait times for social housing among all religious groups.”
In north Belfast, an area that has long served as a microcosm for the Northern state’s broader attitude to its citizens, in 2014 there was a deficit of 666 households in majority Catholic areas in the north of the city while there was a parallel surplus of 72 houses in Protestant neighbourhoods. Even those 72 houses were beyond the reach of those Catholics in need due to the risk of intimidation and violence from unionist paramilitaries. Since 2014, there has been no significant new build in social housing in north Belfast.
The Catholics of north Belfast do not suffer alone. Refugees, asylum seekers and other migrant citizens in the North are frequently forced into overcrowded accommodation at the mercy of exploitative landlords. In the summer of 2018, a report, We Came Here For Sanctuary, was published documenting Syrian refugee families’ experiences of substandard housing conditions and racism in west Belfast.
The families reported that, in the houses of private landlords assigned to them by the Housing Executive, “the kitchen walls, bathroom walls and living room have holes in them and there are worms coming out of the holes… The house is riddled with damp… There is only vinyl flooring in the house and that is not in good condition. There are nails coming up from the stairs – one of my sons sleepwalks and has injured himself many times… The fireplace is coming away from the wall and nearly fell on my child. Almost all of the furniture is broken.”
As for the effect these conditions were having on families’ mental and physical health, one father said, “my wife is being treated for depression because of the stress the house is causing my family. My oldest daughter’s health is getting worse and she is crying day and night, asking why we brought her here. The mental health of everyone in my family is suffering. Nobody is listening to us.”
Contrary to what officials in high places like to claim, this suffering on the part of both families who have lived here for generations and those who have arrived more recently in search of refuge and a decent standard of living is not because of a lack of land on which to build homes for them. The vacant Hillview site on north Belfast’s Crumlin Road has long been the subject of a campaign by families in desperate need of housing. The Catholic enclave of the Short Strand in east Belfast, where 52 households live in a state of ‘housing stress’, lies cheek by jowl with the huge Sirocco site which has lain empty for years.
In the south of the city, the Market community contains 86 households in a state of effective homelessness. The Market is adjacent to the Gasworks, part of which was long zoned for social housing and, yet, not a single brick has been laid. In 2017, Belfast City Council’s planning committee voted to rezone the land on the Gasworks for commercial use and a multistorey carpark.
The Mackies site on west Belfast’s sectarian interface between the Falls and Shankill roads, a one-time factory, has been zoned for ‘a shared space’ project by the Department for Communities with money supplied by the European Union’s peace program. The shared space scheme includes no plans for ‘shared housing’.
At a meeting with families on the waiting list and housing campaigners in November last year, a senior Belfast City Council official stated that, during the community consultation that was carried out regarding future uses of Mackies, no demand for housing on the site was evident. And yet, in the working-class nationalist areas surrounding Mackies – communities which consistently score highest on the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency’s Multi-Deprivation Index – there are 3,736 households on the waiting list for social housing, 2,991 of them in housing stress as of December 2018. It would appear that those behind the consultation process judged it unnecessary to consult these families or that the families themselves no longer regard their housing needs as a priority for governmental action.
In 2002, Belfast City Council signed up to the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City. Among the commitments included in the Charter is that “all citizens have the right to proper, safe and healthy housing”. Sixteen years on, Belfast City Council is clearly still in breach of this obligation.
With all this in mind, try to find anyone in a position of authority in the North who will deny, at least publicly, that ten of thousands of citizens are being failed by the unwillingness (or as some would have it, inability) of the state to provide adequate housing and you will probably be disappointed. Even the planning committee of Belfast City Council – with the exact same party political composition – which voted to rezone the land earmarked for social housing on the Gasworks site have since passed a motion recognising that there is, after all, a housing crisis in Belfast.
The heads of the council and the Housing Executive, in meetings with those on the waiting list, have recognised there is a crisis. But all the public declarations in the world don’t change the fact that there are thousands of families in Belfast who are living in emergency accommodation, being hosted long-term by relatives, sofa surfing, or making do in cramped, run down, deeply inadequate housing, often in tower blocks.
Money, bigotry and political power
In 2014, a number of Belfast families on the housing waiting list who had formed themselves into the Equality Can’t Wait campaign wrote an open letter to the relevant government ministers and put their case thus: “While we wait we live in hostels, in temporary single let accommodation, in housing with such poor conditions that our children are made sick. While we wait we live in expensive insecure housing with unaccountable landlords. While we wait we are homeless and sleeping rough or dependent upon the charity of family and friends. While we wait our children grow up with nowhere to play, nowhere to call home, nowhere to make friends.”
So what’s preventing the resolution of this problem? In short, it is the same correlation of interests that has ever stood in the way of progress in the northern state: money, bigotry and political power.
In recent years, councils in the North have had powers of planning returned to them, enabling them to play a part in determining where social housing is built and when. In areas like north and south Belfast, where the electoral balance is weighted very finely in favour of unionism, it is not in the interests of unionist politicians to accommodate the building of homes which will most likely be occupied by non-unionist voters. Hence, when they get the chance, unionist councillors habitually vote against plans for social housing which will go to the wrong people in the wrong neighbourhoods.
In 2009, the Housing Executive ended its policy of ‘ring-fencing’ social housing in areas of high demand, such as north and west Belfast and Derry. During his tenure as Stormont minister with responsibility for housing, the DUP’s Nelson McCausland – not coincidentally, then an assembly member for north Belfast – went so far as to propose the abolition of the Housing Executive.
Aligned with this sectarian power grab are property developers who are determined to make the maximum amount of profit from the lowest possible investment. So just as the Gasworks site in south Belfast is earmarked for a carpark and the extension of an already massive hotel, so the Sirocco plot which could alleviate housing need in the Short Strand and beyond is to be used for a new hotel and other commercial properties. Hillview in north Belfast is to be a shopping centre, while families in cramped, damp-infested flats overlooking it are expected to wait forever for a decent standard of living.
Equality must be reflected in housing policy
The quotation used at the beginning of this article is taken from public commitments made by the old Stormont government in November 1968 in the face of the increasingly popular demands of the civil rights movement in the North.
Half a century ago, in the aftermath of the state-backed pogrom of August 1969 – which was itself another, if less accommodating, response to the demand for civil rights – a collective of Belfast Gaeilgeoirí took the initiative to rebuild the burnt-out homes of Bombay Street not far from the Mackies site in west Belfast, using their own labour and funds collected from the community. It is unlikely that the residents of Bombay Street would ever have been able to return home if it hadn’t been for this exercise in community self-help.
Belfast is not the city it was in 1969, nor even 1989 for that matter, but the legacy of discrimination and inequality persists. Decision makers cannot stand still or drag their heels in order not to ruffle certain sectarian feathers or to protect power blocs which are no longer reflective, if they ever were, of the place in which we live.
A shared place means living together as equals and this must be reflected in housing policy. If we are to break down barriers and build meaningful, actually-existing shared spaces that, in time, can facilitate the dismantling of monstrosities such as the interface walls that scar us, then the citizens of this city must be housed on the basis of objective and quantifiable need, without either fear of bigotry or the currying of favour with private developers. If, on the other hand, those whose statutory responsibility it is to house those in need continue to prove themselves unwilling to do so, then we could perhaps do worse than take a leaf from the book of those who rebuilt Bombay Street.
Pádraig Ó Meiscill is a Belfast-based writer and activist.