The Westcourt Social Justice Centre
In September Mark Baillie and I visited the Westcourt Centre. We arrived separately and met Cormac McArt at the site. I took the scenic route through reception and into the courtyard and Mark went directly to the office (a reflection of our personalities no doubt!) I accepted the kind offer of coffee, and we sat down to hear more about the history of the site and of the centre.
Situated at the bottom of the Falls Road, Westcourt Social Justice Centre was once a Christian Brothers School. Until 1998, pupils of St. Mary’s CBGS would attend years 8-10 at this site and continue with their education, years 11-12 +, up on the Glen Road site. When Barrack Street finally closed its doors as a school, the Christian Brothers wished to keep their ethos of education and helping others.
The site now facilitates seven different organisations, all charitable groups or services with a shared focus on education and supporting those in need.
Early into his time at Westcourt, Cormac was invited to go to Zambia for two weeks to visit education initiatives there. He witnessed programmes working with children who lived on the streets in Lusaka, and came home determined and motivated to help people locally.
When Cormac was tasked with leading on the development of the work of the centre, he knew that responding to homelessness was going to be a part of the mission of the organisation.
Responding to Homelessness in Belfast
In the early to mid-2000s, homelessness levels had started to rise in Belfast. The first steps the Westcourt centre took was to engage with a nearby hostel, the Morning Star House, to ask whether there was any way they could help support residents.
Cormac had a passion to help those who used the service. He approached the hostel staff to ask if they would be interested in working with him.
They were. The group started with woodwork classes and as Cormac developed a rapport with the men, they completed a range of projects (including making a bee hive!).
Using Creativity to call for Change
One man asked about learning about photography. Cormac was good friends with a graphic designer and they used the classrooms and computers at Westcourt to deliver a course in basic photography.
From this came the Camera Club, a group of people who wanted to use photography for the purposes of advancing social justice. The group includes members with lived experience of homelessness and this is a central aspect of the work of the club.
The photos really got the message out there and over the last decade, the camera club has produced several exhibitions. Cormac told us about the most recent exhibition and the impact it has had. The purpose of the exhibition was to couple photographs with the statistics on homelessness. It is aimed not only at the head but also at the heart, seeking to stir people to take action.
This exhibition was launched at the Four Corners Festival, an annual event in Belfast with participants from right across the city. The exhibition received widespread media coverage, reaching new audiences and gaining national and international recognition. The exhibition has travelled to various sites including Belfast, Derry/Londonderry and Dublin.
One person who saw the exhibition was Nicole Lappin, the current Chair of the Housing Executive board. She made arrangements for twelve of the photographs to be put on the walls of the Housing Executive boardroom. As board members deliberate on the work of the Housing Executive which has such an impact on the lives of people at risk of or experiencing homelessness here, they are surrounded by images highlighting the reality of homelessness.
It is safe to say that the reach of the exhibition has come as a welcome surprise, but it is a good illustration of how creativity can be used to drive social change.
One striking aspect of the work of the Westcourt centre is their advocacy work at the international level. Through their connections with the Edmund Rice International NGO, the Westcourt centre has been making submissions on homelessness to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva since 2016.
These submissions have pressed governmental bodies in the UK to respond to homelessness here. They have also facilitated contributions from people with lived experience of homelessness at an international level and they have had success in garnering attention to the issue at the Council.
Seeking a Socially Just Society
In finishing up with Cormac, it was evident that the golden thread uniting the work of the Westcourt centre is a passionate desire to seek a socially just society. We at Homeless Connect have known Cormac for many years, as he serves as one of our board members. His drive and desire to make a difference for people, especially those who are marginalised, is an inspiration.
Nikki McConville is the Lived Experience Co-ordinator at Homeless Connect