Watch any survival programme and you will know that there are four key priorities: shelter, water, fire and food.

There have been many conversations across our county in recent months about poverty and childcare costs. I am hopeful that we can have another conversation about shelter.

Shelter in the form of refuge is the core from which Women’s Aid operates. A fundamental understanding that none of us can survive or move forward without having a foundation. Somewhere to take shelter.

And so this week, following the publication of NIHE’s homelessness bulletin, I have to ask, where is the shelter in Northern Ireland and where is the shelter in Fermanagh?

In our own council area, the number of people presenting as homeless in July – December 2023 was 31 per cent more than the same period in 2022.

Alarmingly, in the quarter October – March 2024, that number has already been surpassed. More people presented as homeless in our community in one quarter than in the previous six months.

This is a sector I work in and I had to calculate those numbers several times. I honestly thought I must have made a miscalculation. I hoped I had made a miscalculation. I did not.

On March 31, 2024, 4,784 households were living in temporary accommodation in Northern Ireland.

An increase of 132 per cent compared to January 2019. That number includes 5,106 children.

We know that for every pound spent in Scotland in the early years, Northern Ireland spends 12p. What makes our babies deserving of insecure housing and 88 per cent less spending than our neighbours in Scotland? Our children deserve a solid foundation from which to thrive.

More than 1,000 people were homeless due to poor health or disability. This is what the official data tells us although the Simon Community and others are warning that the true scale is much more.

These are warnings that have the potential to impact any one of us. If something happens to you and you can no longer work or your home can no longer accommodate your needs, do not assume that there is a great big safety net to catch you. That net is shrinking and for some of us, there is no net at all.

In July – December 2023, according to NI’s Quarterly Housing Index from Ulster University, the average monthly rent was £849, 9.1 per cent higher than during the same time in 2022. Unreasonable rental costs are one of the key underlying factors for those who become homeless or are at risk of homelessness.

We have also learned that the Department for Communities is only able to fund up to 400 social housing new starts in 2024/25.

Such low numbers have not been seen since 2009. Meanwhile, there are 47,000 on the housing waiting list. Their capital budget has faced a real-term cut of 38 per cent. Without significant investment, it is unclear how the Department can turn the curve on our spiralling numbers of homeless people.

The cost of all this temporary accommodation was £23.7 million according to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Irish News. £23.7 million could have made a significant dent in the number of children housed in temporary accommodation or uplifted budgets for those working to prevent homelessness.

Many of us in the homelessness sector breathed a sigh of relief when it was confirmed that the Supporting People budget would not face cuts but that does not mean that we are as sustainable as we are. Early intervention is always a sensible use of resourcing.

It is however, positive news that the Department of Justice has indicated an intention to review and hopefully repeal laws which criminalise rough sleeping.

I wonder if when our homeless are in our streets we might move toward sensible funding of homelessness prevention and building more homes.

Please do not misunderstand me. Our Department of Justice have been active in passing progressive legislation, our Department for Communities have faced an impossible set of books to balance.

As we can see reflected in society and indeed in recent election results in Ireland and France, when resources are retreating, people seek to save themselves and fear can lead to short-term thinking.

A move to grab what we can of the pie without seeing others and how our needs are linked.

Homelessness, justice and health are inextricably linked and long-term planning with joined-up solutions is what is needed from our Executive.

What we really need in our leadership is bravery. Bravery to take the hard decisions, the ones that aren’t always popular but are necessary and could reap rewards for the next generation. As ever, I have some thoughts, some more radical than others.

Build more homes.

I know it is obvious, but it still has to be said. Get tough on second homes and Air BnBs, either through taxation, restriction or both.

Tax benefits for multi-generational living, grants to extend existing properties to facilitate multi-generational living or safe multiple occupancy homes. Relaxation of planning laws to accommodate modular housing, lowering the threshold for inheritance tax, rental reform to restrict increases. Provide some financial incentive to revitalise our towns and villages and occupy empty buildings and homes breathing new life into our communities. Focus on community asset transfers that would allow the voluntary sector to house our most vulnerable.

I can think of quite a few buildings in Fermanagh which would fit the bill. Our private developers have their part to play too, social clauses with social housing targets in return for their profits. I could go on and on with the options we could explore.

I am acutely aware that there are so many issues in Northern Ireland that it is hard to know which issue to tackle your election candidate first.

But when they knock on your door, if you are lucky enough to have one, ask them what their strategy is for supporting our homeless, supporting NIHE and Department for Communities as well as the voluntary sector’s shrinking safety net.