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Response to New Decade, New Approach

23 January 2020

New Decade, New Approach 

What could the restoration of power-sharing mean for NI homelessness moving forward?

Jim Dennison
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The New Decade, New Approach deal has successfully restored the Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive after a three-year hiatus. Jim Dennison, Chief Executive at Simon Community NI, welcomes the inclusion of housing-related initiatives and commitments to addressing poverty and deprivation within the cross-party endorsed document. He comments on the future of homelessness in the wake of the agreed deal.

With over 24,000 people in housing stress and hundreds of deaths each year from those awaiting a safe and secure home, I am delighted to see the major parties commit to a new future for Northern Ireland.

The previous decade was difficult for the homelessness sector: rising demand for services; no budgetary uplift from the NIHE-managed Supporting People fund for years followed by a huge 5% budget cut; and three years of no meaningful policy or long-term decision making. In the past 10 years, homelessness has evolved into much more than a rooflessness issue – with addiction, paramilitarism, poverty, suicide and poor mental health negatively impacting an already stretched budget and sector. Thankfully, the general public and local businesses have been there to understand, accept and support the changing nature of homelessness but reliance on this assistance is not where any charity, nor the people it services, wishes to be.

By now, I had hoped that all government departments of the Executivewould be aligned to a Homelessness Bill - legislation that was due to be brought forward in 2018 which would have placed a ‘statutory duty’ on all government departments to tackle homelessness. Yet, as of 23 January 2020, our charity looks at the year ahead with no disclosed budget let alone a commitment from key government departments to play their part in the crisis happening in cities, towns and villages throughout the country. However, we can’t turn back time and it’s important to learn from the past to better, and more effectively, make the decisions that will bring about the biggest difference to the lives of vulnerable adults, young people and families.

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I welcome the inclusion of multi-year budgets and note a few areas in the Programme for Government that, if delivered correctly, could positively change the face of homelessness in Northern Ireland over the next 10 years and beyond. I welcome the commitment to proper citizen engagement and co-design of practical and sustainable strategies, something that has been sadly lack in recent years. I welcome the opportunity to refresh the current Programme for Government and will continue to press for a great recognition that homelessness is at crisis point here.

Housing as a Priority

Placing housing as a stand-alone issue will play a major role in the future of homelessness and shows an understanding from the political parties that the problem needs resolved and, hopefully, properly funded.

Whilst homelessness is now much more than bricks and mortar, good quality and affordable homes will always play a major role in reducing the likelihood of someone entering the homelessness cycle. With over 25% of households in 2018-2019 presenting as homeless due to unreasonable accommodation, the priority actions of bringing in new legislation to reclassify Housing Associations in order to allow social house building, will likely result in less ‘long-term’ residents within temporary accommodation projects.

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The Executive’s additional commitments to removing the Housing Executive’s historical debt and excluding it from paying Corporation Tax could provide the freedom needed to repair, develop and manage social housing to the standard and affordability needed by residents. What this could mean for the homelessness sector is a reintroduction, and inflation, of the Supporting People budget, providing the time, space and funds needed to invest in services and train and retain vital support staff.

With around 15% of households in 2018-2019 presenting as homeless due to loss of rented accommodation, the inclusion of legislation to ensure affordability has the potential to make renting a viable option for those within our temporary accommodation projects or on social housing waiting lists.

Fair and sustainable welfare reform

With 34,000 households set to be hit with the bedroom tax, the decision to extend Welfare Mitigation will have a drastic and immediate impact on these households, already struggling with the processes of the benefits system and living on the breadline.

By removing the bedroom tax and implementing an Anti-poverty Strategy, the Department for Communities will reduce the likelihood of poverty for households – providing some necessary breathing space for the homelessness sector by curbing an additional route to homelessness.

Health and Social Care

The face of homelessness today has evolved far beyond the stereotypical old man on the street with a cider bottle. Drugs (prescription and street) now plague society while worsened mental health is growing as a result, or consequence, of homelessness.

The Executive’s commitment to publishing a Mental Health Action Plan within 2 months and a Mental Health Strategy by December 2020 should result in cohesive projects with the Department for Communities and Department of Health to best meet the health and wellbeing needs of those experiencing homelessness. My opinion would be that this commitment, and financial backing, will allow organisations such as Simon Community to respond to the needs of clients thus reducing the likelihood of accidental deaths or recurring visits to A&E.

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Education

Education* is one such area where the Department for Communities should push for partner projects with the Department for Education in an influential position to tackle youth homelessness at an early pathway.

The establishment of an expert group to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background will provide all children and young people, with the best start in life. This can only play a positive role in reducing the number of young people who enter the homelessness cycle, through no fault of their own, only to become a forgotten generation who lack the skills, education and aspirations to succeed.

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Of course, words in a document mean nothing without the people and passion needed to make it a reality. What I would like to see is targets, dates and figures set alongside commitments and I look forward to meeting with the new Minister for the Department Communities, Deidre Hargey, to ensure housing remains a priority and wish her the best in her role as she spearheads the mighty but achievable task of ending homelessness in Northern Ireland.

I especially encourage the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and Minister for the Department of Finance to back Deirdre Hargey MLA in her role by financially supporting and encouraging sister departments to work on innovative routes to tackle the crisis. Research across the globe recognises joined-up departmental processes to be cost-effect to the public purse and this is where the Executive needs to focus its energy in the coming weeks, months and years if it is to deliver on a shared and ambitious strategic decision for the future.

Whilst there is much to like in New Decade, New Approach, my expectation is that the Assembly will deliver, and Simon Community will play a key role by working with parties and Departments to end homelessness in Northern Ireland.

*Click here to learn more about Simon Community’s Pathways to Youth Homelessness