Society problems

Simon Community’s Karen McAlister wants society to ‘think about the unthinkable – not having a home’ – and make changes

Described as a “significant and worrying issue”, homelessness has unfortunately not made the headlines in recent weeks.

We don’t use the word ‘crisis’ very much, but I think we are in a homelessness and housing crisis,” says Karen McAlister, research and development manager at Simon Community Northern Ireland.

Its role is to seek to express the experience of people who use the charity’s services.

“In 2021, we had 1,300 people living in our temporary accommodation,” she explains.

“My job is to try to understand their backgrounds, what they need and how we can help them. We work proactively alongside people with lived experience to end homelessness.

“How that will then translate into new services, new developments, new partnerships, more research – so it’s basically about understanding the people we work with and making sure what we offer them is right for them, to end homelessness.”

The charity is seeing a demographic shift in terms of the people it supports.

“Historically, homeless services would have been primarily for single men,” Karen explains.

“A quarter of the people we support [now] are women, half of whom are under 25 years old. About 40% of the people we support are young people under the age of 25.

“We have to make sure that the money we collect, the grants we get, the services we request, really respond to the group of people who need them.

“We know that demographics are changing.

“We know, to the minute, that there are nearly 45,000 people on the waiting list for social housing.

“Every year we see year-on-year increases in housing need. Of those 45,000 people, 30,000 are considered to be suffering from domestic stress – and that’s before we look at homelessness, temporary accommodation pressures, and then hidden homelessness.

Earlier this year, the Simon Community published research in collaboration with the University of Ulster.

It was revealed that around 100,000 people live in the hidden homelessness bracket – those who are homeless but whose situation is not visible.

A lack of security and stability puts anyone experiencing hidden homelessness at risk, impacting their mental health, life opportunities and overall well-being.

Due to sensitivities around hidden homelessness, potentially more vulnerable people within this population may be more reluctant to access help and discuss their needs online.

“These are people who are invisible; they are not taken into account in the statistics,” explains Karen.

“They’re couch surfing, they’re sleeping in their cars, they’re people in really overcrowded houses, squats, a range of things.

“We know there are people who are more vulnerable to this. We know that it is the young people who are taken care of. Our research tells us that there is a problem with singles over 55. domestic violence survivors [and the] The LGBTQ+ community is all the more vulnerable.

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Karen McAlister pictured at the launch of the Young People’s Project renovation alongside Jim Dennison of Simon Community and Grainne Donnelly of Choice

Karen McAlister pictured at the launch of the Young People’s Project renovation alongside Jim Dennison of Simon Community and Grainne Donnelly of Choice

Additionally, Karen says people living in poverty as a whole are moving closer to homelessness.

“If you think about the cost of living crisis, it’s the highest in 40 years,” she said.

“If you look at the impact of this on people already living in poverty, housing tenure becomes more and more difficult. How do you pay your rent, heat your home and feed your family? What will give? Are we going to see more people becoming homeless because they can’t afford the rent?

“We know that homelessness isn’t just a housing issue, it’s because of multiple layers of social exclusion, poverty being one of them. I don’t think we’re in a great place.

The demographic shift is significant and will be reflected in a forthcoming article by the charity later this year.

“We have seen young people throughout the pandemic – obviously because relationships broke down, family ties broke. We also see people presenting with more psychological and social problems,” says Karen.

The Simon Community is launching work around mental health later in the year because they are so concerned about its impact on the homelessness environment.

“We think some people are finding themselves homeless with mental health issues already, which probably also reflects a lot of changes in society.”

With her previous role as Manager of Youth and Family Services, as well as her current job, Karen’s 20-year career has reflected the positivism that comes with working with one-on-one clients. She says her current role allows the charity to adapt services or create services for young people.

“If you think of children in care, they are actually part of the hidden homeless population,” she explains.

“Because by their nature of being 18, some of them, especially those in institutions, are going to become homeless. There is a hidden homeless youth population there.

“We know they are overrepresented in the homeless population, so what are we doing about it? »

The Simon Community has created a project in which they work with young people before their 18th birthday, “before they are affected by this problem of homelessness, to ensure that they have a home in the community and support 24 hours a day around them”.

For Karen, the “little things” are what count, meeting the most basic needs of those who need extra support.

“We spoke to our customers and knew wellbeing was really a struggle for them during Covid. We looked for funding and everyone received wellness packs, clean bed linen, hygiene packs. It’s from a truly local approach – what can we do to help you today?

“The other thing we do is that everyone who comes into the Simon community gets a welcome pack. It’s in a bag, so people don’t carry their things around in a black plastic bag, that which is a huge dignity issue.

“In this welcome pack you get a toothbrush, toothpaste, towel, gender specific toiletries. You also get things like pasta, canned soup, because when you walk into a hostel, there is a dignity issue and maybe you haven’t eaten for a few days or maybe you have no money or maybe there are issues with Your benefits .

“Asking for food – I don’t think anyone should have to. That’s what some of our fundraising stuff is about: dignity.

She mentions the upcoming Music Against Homelessness concert on September 10, an evening of some of our most beloved artists, including Brian Kennedy, Dea Matrona, Gareth Dunlop, Andrew Strong, Odhran Murphy and Eddie Booth.

“With the event, the message is that homelessness is not the image we had years ago. Homelessness affects all ages in our community. It affects both men and women.

“These are people who are advocating for homelessness, reducing the stigma.

“Without a house, everything is gone. Food, cooking, education, employment, dealing with your trauma is not possible if you have nowhere to sleep at night.

“There are people who are more vulnerable to homelessness,” she continues.

“For the most vulnerable, we as a society need to take extra steps to care for them.

“Children in care are our responsibility, so we must do everything we can to ensure that their exit from care does not turn into homelessness.”

Other vulnerable people include those fleeing violent homes.

“Our victims and survivors – we need to take extra care in society to do something about this,” says Karen.

“The lockdown, for me, gave value to the house. We have never used our house so much. It was about investing in the house and working at home and school was at home.

“Look how much you have valued your home and imagine if you didn’t have that. It’s just a basic right; not having a home is unthinkable, so maybe sometimes we just need to think about it .

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(Left to right) Professor Ann-Marie Gray from Ulster University, Jim Dennison and Karen McAlister from Simon Community


(Left to right) Professor Ann-Marie Gray from Ulster University, Jim Dennison and Karen McAlister from Simon Community

(Left to right) Professor Ann-Marie Gray from Ulster University, Jim Dennison and Karen McAlister from Simon Community

People over 55 are also vulnerable to homelessness.

“I just think if it was your mum or dad who was in that position, who was maybe being manipulated by a private landlord… maybe his rent was being raised and he had no choice.

“Maybe they felt trapped in their own home, these are some of the stories we heard.

“It’s not always about the person on the street.

“People are living in very dangerous situations, trying not to become homeless because they are afraid to do so because of the stigma and the stigma of asking for help. But it puts people in really vulnerable positions.

“We have to think about the unthinkable – not having a home – and we have to think about what can I do about it?”

For anyone interested in offering their support to the Simon community, there are several ways to get involved.

“You can donate,” Karen says. “The donations are directly intended to support homeless people in a variety of ways.”

You can also volunteer your time, with plenty of volunteer and fundraising opportunities, and consider joining the association through recruitment.

“If you agree, we’ll find a way,” Karen said.

For more information on the Simon Community, visit simoncommunity.org. If you are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, please call the Homeless Association’s free helpline on 0800 171 222.

Tickets for Music Against Homeless on September 10, in association with Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Independent, cost £15. 18+. See Ticketmaster for more details