Equality Can't Wait and Housing for All campaigners meet with UN's Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty

Families impacted by welfare reform, homelessness and enforced destitution met with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston in Belfast on Saturday 10 November 2018 to share their experiences as well as their proposals for change.

The UN expert will be reporting back to the United Nations on the government’s efforts to tackle poverty and the human rights impact of various government policies, and will issue his preliminary findings on Friday 16 November.

The Special Rapporteur first travelled to the New Lodge, North Belfast to meet residents of tower blocks set for demolition, homeless families involved in the Equality Can’t Wait – Build Homes Now campaign, and destitute refugees and asylum seekers from the Housing for All campaign. From there he travelled to the Shankill Road to meet with the Right to Work Right to Welfare group – sick disabled and unemployed people campaigning for a human rights checklist to be completed before decisions are made to stop or reduce social security income.

Elinor Mulligan is campaigner with Equality Can’t Wait and a mother of two who has spent over 14 years in hostels and temporary accommodation waiting for a permanent home in west Belfast. She said;

‘We welcomed this opportunity to tell our story to the United Nations Special Rapporteur because it is being ignored by the government officials who are responsible for tackling the housing crisis. There are at least 11,372 homeless children in the north, and in August some of these children showed a film they had made on the issue to the top officials in the Belfast City Council, Department for Communities, and the Housing Executive. These public bodies have the power to vest land and fund the building of new social housing. Following the film we agreed to enter into a period of engagement with them in the hope that they would present us with their plans to drastically reduce the amount of children living in homelessness. On Tuesday (the 6th of November) we met with these bodies for a follow up meeting and were deeply disappointed when it became clear that no progress has been made and that there is little will to seriously tackle the issues of child homelessness and religious inequality in housing provision. It is clear that pressure from international bodies such as the United Nations is desperately needed’

Athi Silevu is a Housing for All group member and Asylum seeker. She told Professor Alston :

‘We did not choose to leave our homes and come to Belfast, we had no choice, we have been forced to flee our homes and seek asylum, yet the British Government is punishing us for doing so. Asylum seekers live on £37.75 per week, we are not allowed to work, we have no access to benefits or other public funds. This is enforced destitution. We live in poor quality accommodation provided by private companies and landlords who profit millions from our poverty, whilst at the same time; those who designed these policies blame us. These policies also create tensions between asylum seekers and other members of our communities, fostering division instead of allowing us to integrate and celebrate the diversity of our cultures. All we ask is that the government end this racist policy of enforced destitution and instead create a system of seeking asylum which affords us the basic rights we deserve.’

The Special Rapporteur travelled first to the Shankill Road through the ‘peace lines’ via Hillview Retail Park, Crumlin Road. The vacant land at this site was identified by homeless families as one of the few remaining undeveloped sites in North Belfast large enough to make an impact on the current housing crisis – a crisis set to deepen due to plans to demolish Housing Executive tower blocks, currently home to over 380 families in the New Lodge alone. In summer 2017, Belfast City Council rejected the appeals and proposals by families, local businesses and political representatives to build an eco friendly urban village on the Hillview site to create jobs, leisure and retail facilities and 130 social homes. In a move widely condemned as sectarian, Council’s planning committee gave a green light to a non-residential commercial development in an area of chronic housing need and persisting religious inequality.

The Special Rapporteur then met with Right to Work; Right to Welfare campaigners in the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road. For the past five years, these sick, disabled and unemployed activists have been documenting the impacts of welfare reform outside social security agencies and assessment centres. They recently launched a report in the Spectrum Centre entitled ‘Conscious Cruelty: Social Security, the Economy and Human Rights’ with evidence taken from surveys of impacted people of the deep poverty caused by welfare reform, back to work schemes, social security sanctions, assessment processes and the large scale privatisation of government social security and employment practices. Not one of the 8500 staff from the Department for Communities, responsible for local administration of social security and employment schemes, accepted the invite to the launch of the report.

Campaigners told Professor Alston of the culture of intimidation and fear that is being deliberately created among benefit claimants “ the story has to be told but people are frightened to open their mouths, that’s what this system is doing to vulnerable people”.

Seán Brady is a development worker with human rights organisation Participation and the Practice of Rights working to support the groups;

‘The promised prosperity and equality of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has not materialised in areas of multiple deprivation like the New Lodge and the Shankill.  Simple, cost effective solutions that would build homes, create jobs and alleviate poverty have been designed by the groups we support. Yet these solutions are ignored or frustrated in an atmosphere where resistance to change and political deal making is the order of the day. This culture permits government decision makers to prioritise the wants of wealthy developers over the needs of homeless children, the unemployed and destitute asylum seekers.

As yet another public funding scandal comes to light, this time surrounding the abuse of the Social Investment Fun,   it was welcome and timely that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty came to listen directly to those impacted. We look forward to receiving his preliminary findings on Friday 16 Nov, followed by his final report in summer 2019. We hope government decision makers follow suit.’