Return to Recent Articles menu

Report on Belfast homeless rally

25 July 2022

Homelessness campaigners march in Belfast.

Several hundred people took part in a rally on Saturday (22/07/22) to highlight the escalating problems of homelessness and drug addiction in Belfast.  The rally was a direct response to the deaths of two young women on the streets of the city the previous week.  It was organised by a number of charities along with the Unite trade union and also had the support of victims’ relatives.  Political parties which had a presence included Sinn Fein, the SDLP, PbP and the Workers Party.

The rally took the form of a march – behind a banner stating “enough is enough” - from the location of a food bank on the lower Antrim Road to the front gates of Belfast City Hall.  Here the crowd were addressed by a number of speakers.  The speeches followed the release of white balloons and the observance of minute’s silence as a mark of respect to those who had lost their lives.

In the run up to the rally many of the groups involved were on the media highlighting the various factors at work that result in people dying on the streets.  The reasons, which include a shortage of accommodation, poor mental health and drug addiction, are numerous and often linked.  While this has been the case for a long time what is remarkable is the degree to which the crisis around homelessness has escalated over a short period.  This shows up most dramatically in the number of on the street deaths.  The woman discovered most recently is believed to have been the 15th person to die on Belfast's streets in just a matter of months.  It is understood there have been a total of 34 such deaths in the greater Belfast area since the start of 2022.

The sense of a growing crisis was made by forcefully by Paul McCusker from the homeless charity The Peoples Kitchen.  He said that over his ten years of working with the homeless the vulnerability he was now witnessing was “probably the highest it's ever been”.   For him what was needed was “better access to addiction services, better resources for preventing overdoses, better drugs treatment services and things like dual diagnosis as well”.  To this end he proposed the creation of a “central hub” in Belfast that all the services would be connected to and that would cover the whole of the city.

The question of drug addiction was also taken up by the charity Extern.  Its director Iain Cameron said they believed an "overdose prevention facility" - where people could take drugs under the supervision of trained staff, who provide drug treatment, mental health services, wound care and blood testing - was needed in Belfast.  He cited evidence from Europe where overdose prevention facilities had been successful in managing overdose deaths.

Unite the Union also put out a strong statement ahead of the rally. Its regional coordinating officer Susan Fitzgerald was quoted as saying that deaths on the street were “an indictment of Stormont”.  She also made a link between the increasing number of female victims and the recent closure of the women-only Regina Coeli hostel. She referenced the 12-week occupation by staff to save the facility which ended after assurances from Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey and NI Housing Executive that an enhanced and expanded replacement facility would be provided.  While this was supposed to be in place by May nothing as yet had materialised.


The speeches at the rally reiterated much of what had been said during earlier in the week.    Paul McCusker of the Peoples Kitchen spoke alongside a Unite member who had been part of the Regina Coeli occupation.   Other speakers included former homeless person now activist Sean Kane who challenged Michelle O’Neill and Jeffrey Donaldson to come on the streets and experience homelessness for three days.   Lee-Maria Hughes recalled her sister Catherine Kenny who died in a doorway in March 2016 and called for early intervention for those struggling with their mental health.  She made the very telling observation that “six years on and it appears we are in no better a place, in fact perhaps worse.”


The rally that took place in Belfast was a welcome response to carnage that is afflicting the city’s most vulnerable citizens.  It provided a powerful testimony to not only the growing crisis around homelessness but also the indifference of the public agencies that should be taking responsibility.  While there was righteous anger from those that spoke there was also a practicality about what measures should be taken to improve the situation.

The weakness of the rally, and the groups that organised it, was the focus on Stormont.  The underlying assumption is that a restored Executive will address the issues around homelessness and drug addiction that the rally so powerfully highlighted.  Yet there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case.  Indeed, the closure of Regina Coeli hostel, and the unfulfilled promises of a replacement, are evidence to the contrary.  The Executive has an appalling record on housing and health.  There is also a social conservatism that runs through the structures of the northern state that would make proposals such as the creation of an overdose prevention facility a non-starter.

While Stormont may be in suspension there are institutions dominated by the same political parties that continue to function.  The most prominent these is Belfast City Council.  It has had a significant influence on the issues raised by the rally.  Such influence has mostly been for the negative.  Its development policies, which favour the owners of buildings and land, have resulted in a large part of the city centre falling into dereliction – creating a much more dangerous environment for vulnerable people.  The Council’s planning committee (controlled by Sinn Fein and the DUP) has blocked the building of housing on suitable vacant sites so as not to alter the community balance in certain districts. For Belfast City Council homelessness and drug addiction are problems to be keep out of sight rather their than solved.   Its most recent response to these issues revolved around the impact on tourism and hospitality.  In the past City Council has installed anti-homeless devices on benches in in doorways as a means to move people on.

The reality is that campaigns on homelessness, addiction and mental health are, and will increasingly find themselves, at odds with state institutions and public bodies that are failing to alleviate these social ills.  The frustration and anger expressed at the rally are a clear indicator of this.  Despite this the dominant impulse continues to be to look to government for help.   That contraction has not been resolved and there is some way to go before the spontaneity and anger represented by the rally hardens into an opposition stance.

Return to top of page