It felt like I’d stepped out of Doc’s DeLorean time car in the Back to the Future films and I had returned to the 1930s. But no. I was in Belfast on a Friday night in 2017 and I was about to visit a soup kitchen.
The city’s streets were awash with heavy rain as I entered the building which is situated next to St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street.
The atmosphere was warm and friendly despite the bleak circumstances.
Volunteers bustled around as they catered to the homeless and those in need of food and someone to talk to.
A sausage stew simmered on the cooker and a large table was covered with cakes, buns, ham and salad rolls and chocolate biscuits. Large urns of coffee, tea and soup were stacked up and ready for use.
The incongruity of it all was striking as you were very aware that literally less than a mile away restaurant goers had their eyes intently fixed on menus as they decided which feast of food they would opt for, and gallons of craft beers, bottles of wine and cocktails were being consumed by thirsty revellers.
Paul McCusker, who has been working in the homeless sector for more than eight years and who volunteers in the soup kitchen, is a nurse and a SDLP councillor.
“To give myself a better idea of what it is like to be homeless in Belfast, I slept out on the streets in 2014 to try and raise awareness about the issue.
“I left my house on a Monday and I didn’t return home until Thursday.
“It was a very tough experience. All I had was a sleeping bag. I slept in Donegall Place in the heart of the city. It was freezing during the night and I found it very hard to get heat into me. I just felt physically exhausted at the end of it and I was only on the streets for three days.”
Paul added: “This soup kitchen has been running for six months. We’re opened every Friday and Saturday – from 7pm to 11pm. An outreach team, run by Charlie McGarry from Rosemount House on the Antrim Road, delivers food, sleeping bags and warm clothes to those living on the streets of Belfast.”
Paul said: “I have personally witnessed a big increase in homelessness, particularly amongst young people.”
I asked Paul what he thought were the necessary steps to try and make a huge dent in the problem. “Homelessness is not just a housing issue, it is also a health issue. We need a totally collaborative approach from the health authorities and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to tackle the problem,” replied Paul.
After a couple of hours in the soup kitchen where I chatted to some of the individuals who were using it, I headed out onto the streets with three other members of an outreach team.
Our car was packed full of provisions, including sleeping bags and hot drinks.
I found the experience deeply depressing as we encountered a number of people who were sleeping rough on the streets.
One man I met, who obviously had a drink problem, embraced me warmly and asked me to say a prayer for him even though he said he didn’t believe in religion.
Of particular sadness was my encounter with three young women – all in their 20s and who were high on drugs. They were huddled together on a street corner and were basically living a hand to mouth situation on a daily basis.
We ended the night by meeting a man in his 60s who has been sleeping rough for more than 14 years. He has refused all offers to enter a hostel and now appears to be entrenched in his opposition to living in a home.
As the rain poured down, I knelt on the ground beside him and we chatted for a short time. His eyes twinkled and his voice was warm. But I couldn’t help think about how long can a human being survive in such atrocious living conditions?
At the end of our night I was dropped off at Royal Avenue. I phoned for a taxi to bring me home.
As I waited I instinctively searched in the pockets of my coat for my own front door key. It felt good to hold it.
• Rosemount provides accommodation for those seeking recovery from alcohol addiction, which may also include secondary drug addiction with associated health issues (www.rosemounthouselimited.org/)
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