Belfast is too great a city to tolerate the scourge of poverty
I grew up in the Belfast of the late Sixties and Seventies, a tough era by anybody’s playbook. But while the working-class community in which I came of age experienced the most heartbreaking hardships, extreme poverty was kept at bay by a state safety net and a makeshift economy.
Belfast, of course, has undergone a remarkable transformation since that era thanks to the peace process.
But, perversely, this new peaceful era has also brought in its wake a turning of the economic screw on the most vulnerable. Thus, alongside our breathtaking and audacious advances in the development of Belfast, we have the outrage of chronic homelessness and punishing poverty.
On visits to the US, I have often encountered food lines and food banks. On a recent visit to San Francisco, I was left unsettled by the sight of thousands of homeless in the city centre — official estimates are of 3-5,000 sleeping rough and begging.
At such times, I have said a quiet prayer of thanks that Belfast has never plumbed the same depths of economic despair.
Latterly, however, I have seen distressing signs that hunger, homelessness and poverty are increasingly blighting Belfast.
A combination of heartless welfare ‘reform’ and the worst recession in living memory have given 21st century Belfast our first food banks: a blot on our civic landscape.
I say that because amidst our wealth and plenty, there should always be a compassionate safety net to ensure even the hardest-pressed can keep the wolf from the door.
Over Christmas, I visited a food bank in Eakenhead Memorial Church run by the big-hearted folk of Rosemary Presbyterian Church in north Belfast. As much as I was distressed by the presence of food banks in Belfast, I was heartened by those who have stepped forward in a generous and dignified manner to put food on the table for the poor.
Indeed, as first citizen it’s been my experience that the churches and faith communities are at the very fore when it comes to giving concrete assistance to the homeless and the impoverished.
Without the selfless work of St Vincent de Paul, East Belfast Mission, Salvation Army, Depaul, the Trussell Trust — which fed 1,500 people locally in the first three months of 2013 — and many more doing work governments should make unnecessary, the plight of the poor would be much worse. Though not a churchgoer, I applaud the work of Pope Francis for challenging society’s acceptance of poverty with his observation: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
I am convinced that we have the genius, the wealth and the will to ensure that no-one in Belfast should live in poverty.
Belfast is a great city. Too great to tolerate the scandalous inequalities. That’s why I have called a civic forum taking place in City Hall today to give new impetus to the battle against the scourge of poverty.
Supported by all parties, the forum will allow key civic, political and community leaders — including those charities and institutions focused on tackling disadvantage — to plot new ways to enhance and better co-ordinate their efforts.
Of course, in all of this, the creation of jobs commanding a living wage is a key element in the battle against poverty. That’s why I made jobs the key priority of my mayorship and am keen to encourage the investment and entrepreneurial ventures which will build a jobs-rich city.
An economic uplift, however, must be allied with an increased focus on the elimination of extreme poverty. We can and must, do both. But, as with every element of building a better Belfast, we can only do it together.
It is my sincere hope that today’s civic forum will give us the springboard from which to launch a new era where peace and prosperity will be enjoyed by all our people.
This post first appeared on the Belfast Telegraph.