At the Guildhall in Derry/Londonderry, and at NICVA in Belfast, panels of expert speakers delivered keynote presentations to audiences of frontline workers, setting out the current challenges, and offering practical and strategic solutions to dealing with them.
The workers in attendance also got the opportunity to share their insight and experience.
Both events were hosted by Homeless Connect CEO, Nicola McCrudden.
At the Guildhall the speakers were: Goretti Horgan, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Ulster University; Ciara Ferguson MLA, Chair of the All-Party Group on Homelessness; Liam Milligan, Chair of Homeless Connect, and Director of the Northwest Methodist Mission; and Amy McParland, Project Manager at Advice NI.
At NICVA the speakers were: Professor Ann-Marie Gray, Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University; Kirsten Hewitt Director of Homeless Services at the Simon Community; Aisling Devine, Service Manager at the Simon Community; and Arfawn Yasin of Advice NI.
Speaking at the Guildhall, Homeless Connect Chair, Liam Milligan, stated that current rising costs pose a real challenge to service providers, with some providers facing a recent 40% hike in the cost of electricity, and 193% rise in oil.
At both the Belfast and Derry events Goretti Horgan and Professor Gray pointed to recent research that found that a quarter or respondents said they wouldn’t have the resources to pay an unexpected but necessary expense of £500. A similar number responded that they had recently had to turn down or off the heating due to costs.
Another worrying statistic from the Ulster University research was that only 10% of properties in the private rented sector are eligible to have 100% of their rent paid by Housing Benefit, whilst most involve the tenants making up the shortfall out of their disposable income (or falling into arrears).
Kirsten Hewitt from Simon Community told delegates that the impact of the rising cost of living is another significantly challenge providers need to navigate whilst still coming out of a health crisis. She stated that the percentage increases in electricity, gas, petrol, and agency costs are putting a strain on the delivery of frontline services.
Kirsten also voiced her concern about what impact this current crisis will have on those at risk of experiencing homelessness, and that the number of households faced with this will certainly increase.
She spoke of the need to look to those who can help in the community, and work together, to continue to support individuals to leave temporary accommodation despite the significant financial challenges they will face.
Amy McParland and Arfawn Yasin from Advice NI reminded delegates at both events that their network of partners throughout Northern Ireland are on hand to provide practical guidance throughout the cost of living crisis.
Delegates pointed out that something needs to be done urgently about staff pay in the homelessness sector, and that they are losing staff to entirely different professions, who are able to offer more competitive wages and terms and conditions.
Reflecting on what she had heard during the events, Homeless Connect CEO, Nicola McCrudden said:
“We’re grateful to all our speakers for their insight into the cost of living crisis and homelessness. The big takeaways from these events are that people are borrowing more, struggling to pay their rent/mortgages, struggling to heat their homes, struggling to eat enough and pay for fuel. This is affecting service users (including thousands of children), as well as frontline staff and charity providers.
“Staff on the frontline so dedicated to their work but “burnt out” – with many on minimum wage and frustrated due to current funding arrangements. Many charities can’t uplift pay, and feel frustration for service users who can’t access services. The overall message in both the Guildhall and NICVA was that the Stormont Executive needs to get up and running again as soon as possible.”
For more information about the St Martin in the Field Frontline Network, go to: https://frontlinenetwork.org.uk/.