Date posted: December 6, 2021

The impact of lockdown has been particularly harsh for those facing homelessness. As we mark Homelessness Awareness Week, CEO of Extern, Danny McQuillan, says some deeply worrying trends have begun to emerge among those affected as a consequence of Covid.

When the world went into lockdown in 2020, it became apparent very quickly that if a standard of equal dignity and care was not met for the most vulnerable in society during ‘normal’ times, it rapidly becomes a casualty in times of crisis. 

Longstanding problems

For organisations like Extern, supporting the most vulnerable in our communities, there have been so many challenges over the past year and half. And, believe it or not, we haven’t even begun to see the very worst of how lockdown has affected those facing homelessness.  

We have seen the people we support becoming noticeably younger than the age groups we would usually encounter. Many are caught in a cycle of sofa surfing or rough sleeping, and are increasingly engaged in street activity, along with the many risks which are inherent in this, particularly to those who are so vulnerable. 

Many too are increasingly using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for managing trauma and the effects of other adverse experiences. This may also contribute towards a complex cycle of sustained or chronic homelessness in the future if intensive supports are not made available now. 

Impact on mental health and wellbeing

Last year, Extern supported 1,017 people facing homelessness across Northern Ireland, every one of them a person with story to tell. They included people like Chris* whose challenges with mental and physical health, and problem drug and alcohol use left him without a place to call home, and little sympathy from some in wider society. Our teams supported him with finding a place to live, and with beginning to tackle his issues with alcohol and drugs. 

There are so many more like Chris too – 16,802 households presented as homeless to the NI Housing Executive in 2019-20, each of them comprising individuals with a story to tell and a range of complex needs to be considered. 

Factors leading to homelessness

The reality is that people’s problems are rarely confined to just one area, and every day our frontline teams manage a multitude of complex issues for each and every person who comes to us for support. There are so many reasons which force people into homelessness – poor mental health, addiction, family breakdown, community conflicts. 

For the most part, these are hidden issues, which are often intertwined and self-reinforcing, and which people are often reluctant to talk about. They present us with uncomfortable truths about our society, and in response we seek simplistic responses – ‘Give them a place to live and they’ll be fine’. 

A roof over someone's head is not enough

Simply putting a roof over someone’s head is not the solution to complex issues like these, though – assuming such resources are even there in the first place. With less homes having been built or completed during lockdown, this has put additional strain on what limited stock remains.

The corollary of this is that we lean even further on the private sector, and although it is encouraging to see the private rented sector playing their part, rental rates have continued to rise leaving this option out of reach for many individuals and families. 

This in turn has pushed many people out of the bigger urban areas and into our rural towns, where pockets of rough sleeping have begun to spring up. Stories reaching us include people sleeping in shop doorways in Bangor, while a Romanian family sleeping rough in Cookstown recently hit local headlines. 

These are sights which once might have been unimaginable in communities such as these and which, we fear, may only continue to grow in the months and years ahead. 

Changing attitudes

People are on the edge right now, and it is up to all of us to ensure they do not slip over. One big step forward we can all take for Homelessness Awareness Week is to think about how we meet society’s attitudes and prejudices towards this issue. 

This includes opening positive conversations about how we can support people with finding their way out of homelessness, how we can encourage a more socially conscious rental sector, and creating a genuine understanding of the multitude of complexities which lead people into homelessness. 

Covid was an earthquake in the middle of an already fragile landscape of complex need and insufficient resource. The impact caused by the pandemic will be felt by everybody for generations to come - but most especially those who had so little to begin with. 

*Not his real name