My mum locked me out once. She says it was my fault because I forgot my keys, but as her child (even at 24) I say she locked me out. It was a cold, bitter and winter night. I had no phone, no coat and no way to contact her.
All I had was my car key and my old laptop that I was praying would hold up long enough to message my cousin, to message her mum, to message my mum to say that I was on the doorstep with limited wifi and no way to get in the house. It was freezing and my teeth were chattering.
When I tell the story in front of my mum, I say she left me there for hours but realistically it couldn’t have been anymore than an hour or so.
I tried to put the heat on in the car, but the petrol light flashed and I was afraid of running down my battery. My laptop died before I heard if Megan got the message to my mum or not.
But when she finally came home, after a barrage of abuse and me telling her she’d failed my entire life as a mother, I finally calmed down after a cuddle, a round of toast, a cup of tea, and getting snuggled into my own bed.
And that last line is the most important one of my little story.
I had what I needed to make the unpleasantness of the situation go away. Human contact. Warm food. A place to be safe and cosy. Nothing grand. Nothing special.
I volunteer with Help for Homeless outreach programme on Thursday nights. It’s amazing to see a collection of selfless, kind hearted people do what they can for those in need. Giving up their time. Team leaders that are at the end of a phone, morning, noon and night.
And it’s hard. It’s not hard because of the ‘raging alcoholics’ and ‘violent drug abusers’ that come to the station. It’s hard because of the people that come to the station. The sons that are just trying to get a spare sleeping bag for their aging dads because there’s nowhere to keep them for the night. The dads that are fighting to save enough for a deposit on rent to get a place so they can see their kids maybe for a day a week. The women with the most awful stories of things that have happened to them in the doorway of the city where I grew up. My city. And yes, it is hard to see people who struggle with addiction. It’s obvious it’s a problem that’s only growing on our streets but at the same time – so what? They’re still people. They’re still human beings, whether they fill the void of loneliness, hunger and the cold with something or not. And all they ever ask for is help.
There are, of course, hostels that are open to the homeless population (because that is what it has come to – a population), but they are far from comfortable safe houses. Last summer I was in regular contact with a young man living in a well known hostel in town. I met with him a number of times a week, seeing him after beatings, seeing him after he’d been robbed of everything, from clothes to phones, and seeing him when he’d just given up entirely. And that’s why many of our service users choose to bed down for the night in doorways.
I walk through town on a regular basis and my favourite route is always down High Street. Passed Mothercare and on the way to Primark. I’d nip into McDonalds, buy a cheeseburger and a cuppa, and double back on myself to visit one of my favourite service users. He was a gentleman – quiet and mostly refusing of help. However, when I barged in with my cheeseburger and sat for a natter with him there was no taking of no for an answer. He’d jokingly call me Britney Spears everytime, and reluctantly take the food. We’d have a little bit of banter and he’d tell me he’d see me again. I talked about him with my friends and my family. He was always so appreciative. He was a far cry from the villain homeless man we see in the media today.
And yet, the city of Belfast – the city I love and adore – let him slip through the cracks. He passed away this week, in the cold, in a doorway, on his own. The fourth death in as many weeks. Something is wrong with where we live. I call our city one of the most wonderful on earth – we have our problems, but we’re hospitable, friendly and caring. But I feel like Belfast has let us down. The four most recent deaths on our streets have had some space on the news, on the radio, and in the papers, however few people could tell me about the 13 others in the last 12 months. 17 people in a year. 21 in the last 18 months. This might be new news but it isn’t a new problem! Something is wrong with Belfast. We are letting people who are part of our city – part of us – slip away. We shake our heads at articles we read while drinking our tea in the morning and we go back about our day. Maybe we occasionally toss a quid to the man in the door beside the shop we spent £100 in for the weekend ahead. It is not enough.
We need solutions, not sticking plasters over cracks. We need long term help for those with addiction, mental health issues, and in poverty. We need a city who is willing to take responsibility for ALL of the people that live there – and not just the ones in business suits. Something is wrong with Belfast and we can’t fix it alone. And that’s breaking my heart.