12 Jun 2017

Homelessness in the spotlight with hard-hitting production - 18,600 homeless households in NI in the last year[1] - More than 50 individuals declare themselves homeless every day

A lack of emergency accommodation and a freeze on critical housing programmes are pushing more people towards homelessnesstoday than at any point over the last seven years.

That’s the message Choice Housing and the Simon Community will deliver in Belfast tonight at a performance of Hostel, a play inspired by the experiences of critically-acclaimed Belfast playwright Fionnuala Kennedy as she fought for a home in 2010.

Over the last seven years, the availability of accommodation has become a critical issue. In the last year alone, more than 18,600 households presented themselves as homeless to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Meanwhile Supporting People, a government funding programme that helps residents with multiple challenges into housing and services, has been frozen a decade, a real-terms cut of 25 per cent. 

 Michael McDonnell, Group Chief Executive at Choice Housing said:

“Northern Ireland has the highest comparative level of homelessness in the UK with more than 50 families or individuals declaring themselves homeless every day. Hostel is a powerful representation of the issues facing thousands of people each day. Yet if this play was written today, it would reflect bleaker prospects and significantly greater pressures for those needing a home.

“Service providers have been working with statutory partners to improve the response, but a prolonged funding squeeze for the Supporting People Programme and a lack of suitable accommodation is inching more people towards homelessness. The new Homelessness Strategy recognises the challenges ahead must be met with ambition and resourcing if we are to realise its vision of ‘ending homelessness together’.”

Hostel is an intensely personal experience of Fionnuala Kennedy’s own battle to gain her own independence as a single, young, homeless mother in Belfast. Although good Northern Irish humour is punctuated throughout, this works to heighten the serious themes that are addressed in the production.

Jim Dennison, Chief Executive, Simon Community Northern Ireland said:

Hostel is an important reminder that, for many, homelessness can be much closer than we think. Since it was last performed at the theatre in 2012, official statistics show a sharp increase in homelessness. It is staggering that in the last year almost 20,000 households have presented themselves as homeless to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Even more worryingly, independent research shows that the figure of ‘hidden homeless - i.e. people who are considered homeless but whose situation is not visible either on the streets or in official statistics – could be as many as 136,000 people in Northern Ireland. That is a horrendous figure.”

Jim added, “This play is not just the personal story of the brutal causes and effects of being or becoming homeless but also a wake-up call to all of us that we are in a homelessness crisis in Northern Ireland. It’s likely that the problem of homelessness will get worse because we are seeing dramatic cuts in government funding and demand for housing is far exceeding supply. We urgently need a functioning Assembly to address this crisis.”

Hostel playwright, Fionnuala Kennedy said:

"I initially decided to write Hostel to show the frightening circumstances faced by those who are homeless. Since the play was written, it is depressing to state that the situation is worse now, with cuts to vital services as well as crucial benefits to support those trying to rebuild their lives. The play looks at judgements placed upon people who are homeless. This has not changed, and in this current climate of fear, these stereotypes have allowed ordinary people to bypass those in need.

“Now more than ever, people who are homeless are often viewed as exaggerating their situations to get a free house, as drug-addled wasters who don’t want to work or help themselves. These judgements have dangerous consequences. I want the play to offer hope in navigating and surviving this sometimes brutal system, and showing that compassion and understanding can make all the difference."

Following the performance, Fionnuala Kennedy and co-sponsors Choice and the Simon Community will be joined by senior representatives from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Extern and the Chief Social Work Officer (NI) to participate in a panel discussion.

This will be chaired by Gerry Skelton, an academic and social justice campaigner, and is aimed at identifying how people facing potential homelessness can be better supported. He said:

“The spectre of homelessness is an ongoing blight on our social and political consciousness, and should result in better individual and collective action and resolution. However, as someone who has been campaigning in this arena for many years, my experience, all too often, is that many agencies and organisations adopt a competitive rather that cooperative approach; which inevitably results in self-serving rather than humble service for and to those most in need.

“In addition, while many espouse the virtue of former and current service user involvement, the ambitious rhetoric is more positive than the given experience, which rarely results in meaningful involvement! Our 'Hostel' event is a creative way of challenging this; bringing a plethora of people together to experience one person's lived reality of homelessness; and extracting from this personal account some important public implications.

“Fionnuala's story and positively provocative play, will also help me challenge the dehumanising 'labelisation' effect: namely seeing a stigmatised label before a person! So we have no 'homeless people' but people who are, have been, or may become homeless, and it is that person first - and issue second - that I am compelled to see and address: and hopefully others will help me 'join those life dots'.”

Hostel is being performed at the Baby Grand at the Grand Opera House by Belfast-based MACHA Productions on 12th June.

[1] http://www.nihe.gov.uk/homelessness_information