On Wednesday June 8, I had the opportunity to pay a visit to the Housing Support team at YMCA North Down. Based in the heart of the city of Bangor (it’s going to take some time to get used to calling it a city!), the YMCA North Down has been providing housing support to individuals with housing-related needs since 2003.

Mark Baillie Visiting YMCA North Down

From L to R: Mark Baillie, Sharon Titterington, Laura Cooke, Kinga Pers and Jade Shaw

The team works across the area of Ards and North Down, providing one-to-one housing related support to those experiencing homelessness as well as tenants and people who own their own home. The support is provided to individuals aged between 18 to 65.

As is becoming increasingly apparent, Northern Ireland is in the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis. Ards and North Down is no exception. In some parts of the area, applicants need over 180 points to even have an opportunity to get access to social housing.

Private rental properties are growing more and more scarce, as landlords sell properties and leave the sector. Rents for available properties are rising and in the vast majority of cases are far beyond the Local Housing Allowance rate used to calculate housing benefit for tenants renting from private landlords. Indeed, PropertyPal data for the first quarter of 2022 found that rents in Ards and North Down rose on average by 13.0% in the last year. This is the highest rise in rent of all of the council areas in NI.

These realities pose significant challenges both for Housing Executive staff and for support services in Ards and North Down seeking to support people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. No easy short-term solutions are evident. One point which is obvious though is that the ongoing stasis at the NI Executive is making things harder.

Listening to the challenges facing the team, it would be easy to be despondent. However, as I often find when visiting frontline staff in the homelessness sector, I found it a heart-warming experience to meet with manager Sharon Titterington and her team.

I was especially struck by the level of care and commitment they had for those they are supporting. One of the core values of the YMCA North Down is respect – a belief in the intrinsic dignity of every person. Listening to the staff left me in no doubt that this is an important value for the team, which they are living out in their work.

While they cannot solve every housing related issue facing their clients, it was clear that this team makes a real difference both in small and big ways. Sometimes the support they provide can be simple things – for example assisting with paperwork or being a listening ear for people facing difficult circumstances. At other times they can confront complex problems which require collaborative working and creative thinking. Some of these interventions can be the difference between someone sustaining a tenancy or losing their home while others can make a real difference to a person’s quality of life.

Of particular note is the fact that one member of staff is focused on supporting individuals and families from ethnic minorities living in the Ards and North Down area. As Northern Ireland becomes more diverse, such housing support will become increasingly necessary. These individuals can come from a wide array of different cultural backgrounds, so it requires sensitivity and cultural literacy to provide effective support. The respectful way in which people from ethnic minority backgrounds are supported was very much in evidence.

I am grateful to the Housing Support team at YMCA North Down for facilitating a visit. If you want to find out more about their work, do take a look at their website and follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

For more blogs on our visits to frontline services in Northern Ireland click here.
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