By SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon – speaking at this year’s Chartered Institute of Housing NI conference in Belfast
I believe there are five human rights: the right to food, education, health, work and a home, and I believe –and this is well evidenced – that an affordable, secure, suitable and sustainable good quality home is the foundation stone to all other rights. Without this, it is difficult to hold together all other aspects of your life.
The number of individuals and families presenting as homeless is steadily increasing. Just a few days ago, the National Audit Office attributed the 60 per cent increase in the number of families presenting as homeless (since 2010) to the Welfare Cuts. With benefit sanctions and the cuts to housing benefit, the roll out of Universal Credit and the abyss people will be plunged into when the mitigation package runs out, with no safety net come 2020, this crisis will only deepen here.
In my own constituency of North Belfast, there are over 2,500 households on the waiting list- with over 1,700 living in housing stress; I honestly fear for what will happen next.
We also know that not only are the number of children and adults living in poor unsuitable accommodation, the complexities and vulnerabilities of those in need of help are increasing too, especially when it comes to physical health, mental health and addiction issues. This is on top of our aging population and the challenges that in itself presents.
In short, this means demand for suitable accommodation and support services, and all at a time when budgets are being cut. Put bluntly, you are expected and needed to do more, with and for, some very vulnerable people, with less resources. As a result, this places staff and volunteers under immense stress and placing organisations in an unsustainable environment.
Yes, there are small positive steps, like the confirmation I received from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive that the five per cent cut to Supporting People is to be reversed, but that is for this financial year only – which equates to simply a stay of execution.
I know a number of you have questions about exactly where this money will be directed to and I am posing a number of additional questions to the Housing Executive and will share these responses with the sector. But this one example demonstrates the short sightedness, the short term cost saving approach by government with regard to cutting costs to save money in the here and now despite the fact that it will shore up huge problems in the future that will have an equally huge cost in terms of the public expenditure and more importantly people’s lives. And at the heart of this, is the counterproductive silo approach by Government.
This conference has been called because you recognise the inextricable connection between health and housing, you recognise that tackling these inequalities and future proofing it requires partnership working; strategical and operational partnership are critical.
Yet in Northern Ireland only one government department- that of Communities- is statutorily mandated to address housing and homelessness. It was out of sheer frustration at this mentality and approach that I tabled my Private Members Bill, which aimed to place a statutory obligation on all government departments to deal with homelessness. And if, because sadly it is a big ‘if’, our devolved institutions are restored, I will be at the Assembly Bills Office on the first day it re-opens, to get the ball rolling again on that piece of legislation.