On 27 July 2022 Nicola, Mark and I visited Centenary House and Calder Fountain Lifehouse, right in the heart of Belfast city centre.
Centenary House is a hostel owned and run by the Salvation Army, while the adjoining Calder Fountain includes self-contained flats run by them.
We met outside, and I was immediately struck by the copy of Timothy Schmalz’s “Homeless Jesus” sculpture placed at the entrance to the building – a powerful and haunting work of art that reflects the dual purpose of the Salvation Army.
As a Christian church and charity, The Salvation Army believes helping others is an important part of being a Christian. This is sometimes called “faith in action”.
In Northern Ireland they run five specialist services, as well as six in Dublin, providing accommodation and support for individuals and families who are facing a range of challenges.
Assistant Regional Manager, Erene Williamson, welcomed us and brought us into Centenary House’s bright and welcoming café area to talk.
Centenary House is one of the largest accommodation services for single men over the age of 18
“Centenary House provides accommodation and support to the most vulnerable single adult males, some of whom have significant complex needs.
“We offer a safe, supportive environment for individuals, helping them make positive choices about their current circumstances.”
At this point in the conversation we were joined by Regional Manager, Neil McKittrick. He told us about the challenges they face in retaining staff, due to the increasing competition with both agencies and other sectors when it comes to pay and conditions.
Like so many sites that we have visited recently the story is one of staff commitment in spite of the lack of uplift in the Supporting People grants that would allow organisations like the Salvation Army to give their staff a pay rise.
Neil told us:
“Despite everything, staff still turn up and give of their all, because of their dedication.”
As we were taken on a tour of the building we saw that dedication first-hand.
The main recreation area was another bright, welcoming space with pool tables, pot plants, sofas and a TV area.
On our way through we saw staff and residents socialising together, and could sense the warmth and generosity of spirit between them.
It was when we were taken upstairs that we got a sense of the scale of the complex.
What you cannot see from street level (and everyone who drives through Belfast has regularly driven past Centenary House) is the warren of corridors and private rooms contained inside.
The Centenary House/Calder Fountain complex has a vast footprint, and provides vital services for some of Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable people, but like so many frontline services, it needs more secure funding to make sure that it keeps supporting those who need it most.
As our tour ended we gathered the staff together for a photograph and Nicola was able to chat to them all.
The staff take great pride in their work, and spoke about the huge reward it is for them to come in every day.
One woman told us that they’ve had people leave their jobs in banks and other sectors to work at Centenary House, and how much happier they are now.
Another staff member talked about the journey of an 82-year-old man who had been long-term homeless, whose life was turned around by his time with them, and who is now back in secure tenure.
We were told that this is a place where residents are welcomed without judgement.
There was clearly a huge collective pride among the staff in the service they offer.
But they also spoke of the challenges of shifting from providing shorter term accommodation services to becoming a long stay hostel.
What we came away with was a sense of urgency of the need to have a fully functioning Executive again.
When you visit a site like Centenary House you are seeing the last safety net before total destitution, and without Stormont releasing the hundreds of millions of pounds that are currently logjammed by political stalemate, then the risk to these frontline services becomes ever greater.
This is the latest in our blog series on our visits to frontline services throughout Northern Ireland.