At the beginning of April, the Minister for the Department for Communities Deirdre Hargey paid tribute to those working to support all those in a homelessness situation during the pandemic, praising the efforts of the Housing Executive and homeless charities and organisations who have helped provide temporary accommodation for the street homeless.

However, Maria Thompson, co-ordinator of First Housing Enniskillen, a non-profit organisation which provides professional advice on housing and solutions to people who find themselves in housing difficulties, explained that although temporarily housed, such arrangements are unlikely to lead to a long term solution for those who were previously homeless.

Speaking to The Impartial Reporter, Maria said: “The efforts of statutory and voluntary agencies in the housing sector, additional government funding and the lockdown restrictions have resulted in previously homeless people being placed in a range of temporary accommodations, including emergency accommodation, holiday lets, B&B, hostels, friends and acquaintances. Although temporarily housed, such arrangements are unlikely to lead to a long term solution for many due to the complex nature of homelessness.”

Maria noted that some people who are street homeless will have been placed in hostels where they have had previous problems and would not under pre-lockdown conditions reside in.

“They will have to remain there, tolerating the circumstances and behaviour from other residents that would ordinarily make them decide to leave and return to the streets,” she shared.

Explaining that homelessness is a more complex issue than just the absence of a home, Maria said: “It involves a complex interplay of individual and structural factors. Individual factors include relationship breakdown, mental or physical ill health, substance misuse, bereavement, experience of care, and being part of the criminal justice system. Structural factors include poverty, inequality, housing supply and affordability, unemployment, welfare benefits and income policies.”

“There are two types of homelessness – street homeless and hidden homeless. Street homeless is the visible face of homelessness and the one we immediately recognise. Hidden homeless is as the name suggests the hidden side of homelessness. It refers to people who do not have a home and are using every means at their disposal to avoid sleeping rough. It includes people who are sofa surfing, residing - not by choice - in someone else’s home and living in derelict or abandoned buildings,” Maria added.

Commenting on the impact the pandemic has had on those who are street or hidden homeless, Maria said: “The impact is varied, some people will experience many problems, others less so. Some service users who are used to isolating themselves or who are agoraphobic may not experience much change to their everyday routine, others are deteriorating the longer the lockdown continues.”

She added: “Part of the hidden homeless population known as sofa surfers may experience an increase in exploitation and abuse as they may have to spend a longer time in a particular property than is good for them. Sofa surfing refers to the practice of staying with series of friends, acquaintances and/or others for indefinite periods of time, as an alternative to street homelessness. This arrangement is always a precarious one bringing exploitation and abuse into the life of someone who is already vulnerable. However now there is the increased risk of getting or spreading infection at this time.”

When asked by this newspaper what First Housing would say about the future of the street homeless who have been temporarily housed during the pandemic, Maria answered: “Just as there are many paths to homelessness there will be many paths taken, once restrictions are lifted, by those who have been temporarily housed. Whether people who were street homeless will return to their previous circumstances will depend on so many things including where they were residing during the lockdown, the impact the accommodation and the people that were part of it has had on them, their physical and mental well being and the support networks available to them both during and post lockdown.”

She continued: “This will also be dependent upon where homelessness appears on the government’s priority list and what measures they put in place to assist with the transition from Covid-19.”

“A strong government commitment and a fully costed transition plan needs to be in place to prevent a return to homelessness for many and an influx of new homeless,” she added.

First Housing’s work in combating homelessness is twofold. Firstly they prevent homelessness by supporting those who have difficulty sustaining their tenancy to so. This involves providing assistance to deal with, or manage, the issues that threaten their tenancy, for example, poor mental health, debt, addictions poverty or other. Secondly they address homelessness by supporting those who are without a home to acquire one either in social housing or the private rented sector. Maria explained that they are continuing to support their service users through liaising with NIHE, Housing Associations, private landlords, property searches, assisting with housing applications, grant applications, benefit advice, completing forms, neighbourhood disputes, income maximisation, budgeting, debt, reporting repairs and signposting.

“We contact all our service users on a weekly basis to provide emotional support, combat loneliness and assist them to deal with whatever tenancy sustainment issues they are facing,” she added.

When asked if First Housing expect an increase in homelessness following the pandemic, Maria responded: “It is very hard to predict anything at this time, but an educated guess would be that when freedom of movement returns there will be a surge in homelessness due to financial problems and an intensification of other personal and structural problems already outlined.”