OPINION: ‘We must keep up support for people’

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Kevin Wright, Chief Executive of First Housing Aid & Support Services and Chair of Council for the Homeless (CHNI) has said increasing demand for homelessness support services and rising budgetary pressures require an urgent rethink of Supporting People funding.

Today (Friday) marks the start of Homeless Awareness week. A fantastic range of events and activities have been arranged to celebrate the great work of the homelessness sector and highlight the plight of individuals and families who, for a wide range of reasons, find themselves homeless.

Whilst the Methodist Mission, in Crawford Square; Apex Housing Associationat St. Columb’s Wells; the Simon Community at Bond’s Hill) and our team at First Housing are doing a fantastic job in in the Derry and Strabane area – homelessness services are under severe strain due to the current funding pressures.

Homelessness support is funded through the NIHE Supporting People Programme, which independent assessment shows saves the public purse £125.05m a year through preventing the need for other, more expensive public services. Every £1 spent on SP saves the public purse an average of £1.90.

These savings increase significantly to £2.50 for people with mental health issues, £5.62 for domestic violence support and as high as £11.18 when supporting people with drug problems.

One of the biggest benefits is the £26.40m saving for the health service.

In 2017/18 Derry and Strabane received £8.4m of the £72.8m Supporting People budget to provide 80 housing support services.

Despite the clear ‘invest to save’ benefits of Supporting People, there has been no inflationary uplift for over a decade. Successive and increasing budgetary pressures coupled with a clear and present need for additional services means the Supporting People programme is not sustainable.

“This funding situation became worse still when accommodation-based services had their budgets cut by 5 per cent from April 2018.

For First Housing this five per cent cut meant the loss of four posts and staffing levels at our accommodation projects are now cut back to a bare minimum.

Over 3,500 people were referred to various FHASS homeless support and community services in the last year.

Thankfully, we were able to help 2,325 but sadly, for the remaining 1,186, they had to go onto waiting lists due to funding and capacity limitations.

One of our largest specialist accommodation services, Jefferson Court, provides a safety net for 25 young people aged 16-25 years with a range of homelessness support needs at any one time. At Ardmoulin Mews, we work with Fold Housing Association to provide 21 self-contained units for single parents and families awaiting permanent re-housing.

We also provide accommodation through smaller units for people with a mental health diagnosis and floating support for people who need a range of outreach services to enable them to stay in their current accommodation.

If we are to continue Supporting People these and many other services need funded properly before they start to close.

First Housing provides 25 homelessness and community services throughout Northern Ireland to over 2,300 people each year.