Nichola Mallon MLA is an advocate of housing and homelessness rights in Northern Ireland. Here she highlights the real-time impact for her constituents and her aim to achieve legislative changes to support people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.
I believe these five basic human needs are the key to living a full and balanced life: access to food, to education, healthcare, work and a home. I am convinced, as this is well evidenced, that access to a secure, suitable, good quality and affordable home is critical if all of these other basic needs are to be met.
Research shows that there is a strong correlation between homelessness and a multiplicity of mental and physical illness and substance misuse, as well as an inextricable link between homelessness and financial hardship. Similarly, an individual in housing stress is significantly more likely to be involved in, or fall victim to a crime.
Yet, despite all of this evidence, government here continues to operate as if homelessness is simply an issue of rooflessness. It is not. Nor is there in my view, full acknowledgement and acceptance within and across government of the growing housing and homeless crisis here. The chronic issue of hidden homelessness, whether it be sofa surfing, living in temporary or overcrowded accommodation, or living in fear of violence and the list goes on, is one of the biggest challenges facing our society today.
In my own constituency of North Belfast there are over 1,700 households living in housing stress, and with more and more households forced to pay the ‘bedroom tax’, not least come 2020, the lack of regulation in the private rented sector, and the severe lack of readily available suitable accommodation, homelessness is only set to rise.
The sheer number of constituents that present to constituency offices across the north in housing stress each day is relentless. More often than not, homelessness comes hand in hand with an array of other complex issues that collectively need addressed. Tempting as it may be to fix the obvious problem at hand, overlooking other deeper issues is simply to apply a plaster over a deep and deteriorating wound.
There is no satisfaction to share one example, from successfully pushing for medical assistance for a constituent with a respiratory disease, when the dampness in the home they will be returning to has still not been addressed, because it is only a matter of time before their health deteriorates all over again.
It was out of frustration at the futility of this disconnect and the pervading misconception among government departments that homelessness is simply rooflessness which led me to table a Private Member’s Bill at the first opportunity after winning my Assembly seat in March 2016. My rationale was that if change was to happen it had to be enshrined in legislation.
My intention was, and it remains, to bring forward a piece of legislation which places a ‘statutory duty’ on all government departments to tackle homelessness. Not only will this lead to a more holistic approach and collective coordinated solutions, it will also place this priority on a much firmer resource footing while delivering significant long-term savings in health, social security and justice related public expenditure to name just a few.
The motivation behind this bill, in addition to the future proofing element, savings and the fact that this approach is based on best practice, is the desire to restore the dignity and security that comes with having your own home and all that flows from that. It is incumbent upon those of us that have been given a mandate to use our positions to bring about positive change for our citizens.
It was deeply frustrating to see this bill fall when the Assembly was collapsed in January this year. However, I remain committed, and be there restoration of the devolved institutions or not, I will do all that I can to set this legislative process in motion again.
Click here to download View Digital’s full Homelessness Crisis issue.