Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests and residents, I am delighted to be here today and officially open the Mater Dei hostel. Congratulations to De Paul Trust on the establishment of this wonderful place that provide temporary accommodation to many families waiting on permanent housing.

Lack of affordable housing

As we all know Northern Ireland is facing a crisis in the lack of affordable housing and social housing. Young people are finding it increasingly difficult to find their first home with many forced to rent homes from private landlords as they cannot afford to buy. Add to this that there are virtually no properties available from the housing executive or associations and the scale of the problem is evident.

Our statistics on homelessness do not paint a true picture as they only reflect the numbers of people who apply to the Housing Executive.

They do not include the many people staying with family and friends and do not include those living on the streets who cannot access support services.

Our legislation governing housing does not consider young people aged 16 and 17 as a priority. Yes, you heard that right! They are not a priority for housing needs. This is leaving teenagers at risk of homelessness as they cannot accrue sufficient points to be housed. This leaves some young people at risk of being placed in vulnerable situations. Many young people in this situation are forced to go into private rented accommodation even though their housing benefit does not cover the total amount of the rent.

Behind those words I want you to think about what this means for the young people. What can it be like to be faced with a wall of bureaucracy? What can it be like to equate your chance of shelter equated to a ‘points formula’?

That message to young people is one that is bound to destroy their self-esteem. Many of those are trying to escape from difficult situations, situations where there life opportunities are limited. Without a home those life opportunities are even further limited.

Young homeless people are living in poverty on the margins of and excluded from our society. This situation is all too common and needs to be addressed.

Poverty Issues

Tackling the issues around child poverty and social exclusion is a significant priority for NICCY, particularly in terms of how it affects children and young people with disabilities, those in lone parent families and those from ethnic minority groups.

Poverty, like homelessness impacts children and young people throughout their lifetime by adversely affecting their educational and employment opportunities, social life and, as mentioned earlier, their self esteem.

Many children and young people living in Northern Ireland experience high levels of poverty and deprivation; more so than in any other part of the United Kingdom. The Anti-Poverty Network estimates that 8% of children are living in severe poverty in NI, with 38% of our children identified as deprived of one or more child necessities.

Statistics are all very well for quantifying relative poverty but I find that a more meaningful way of putting poverty in context is to look at the life experiences behind the numbers - for it’s here that you begin to get a glimpse of what living in poverty actually means to those children who are caught in the poverty trap.

What’s it like to leave home because of domestic violence and not know whether you will have a roof over your head?

What’s it like to live in a house infested with damp?

What’s it like to live in a flat with sewage coming up through the sinks and pigeon dirt covering walkways?

What’s it like, as a parent, to have to give up your job to look after a child with a disability and eventually have to sell your house to pay the mounting bills?

I can only imagine the pain.

I want to reflect for a moment on some of the findings from a major study commissioned by my office to investigate the state of children’s rights in Northern Ireland. As part of this study the researchers asked over 12,000 children from a range of schools across the province, to tell them about the things they considered to be unfair in for example, their school, their family, the play and leisure facilities in their area, and their community.

506 submissions from children and young people which related to unfairness in their lives raised the issue of the area in which they lived. More than half of these (54%) criticized the poor and dilapidated state of their community. Children living in poverty were exposed to many risks – physical, mental, social and environmental which impacted significantly on their health, safety and general sense of well being.

One significant finding of the research was that these children wanted things to get better. They did not want to live in an area where people did not take pride in their homes; they did not want dogs fouling on footpaths or rubbish bins and bus stops being vandalized, or paramilitaries and joy riders parading the streets. These children wanted a better quality of life but their present circumstances made them vulnerable.

These children living in poverty are more likely to be in poor health, to have learning and behavioural difficulties, to underachieve at school, to become pregnant at too early an age, to have lower skills and aspirations, to be low paid, unemployed, and welfare dependent. These are the children who need our help.

I believe that by improving the standard of living in these communities we can make a real difference to the lives of these children for the better.

In 1999, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged to halve child poverty across the UK by 2010 and eradicate it by 2020. However, the lack of policy initiatives and resources in Northern Ireland with regards to tackling child poverty suggest that government is failing to deliver on its promises here.

While the anti poverty strategy is attempting to fully address the issue of child poverty at two key stages in the lives of children and young people, the targets set by the government need to be revised. The majority of the targets set must be achieved by 2020, NICCY believes an action plan should be developed to implement this strategy now. This action plan should take each target and break it into smaller interim goals that are time bound to be measured at regular intervals. The Executive must ensure that adequate resources are allocated to fully implement the Strategy.

Full and effective implementation of the obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is not possible without a workable Anti-Poverty Strategy. If this is not addressed, it will continue to represent a failure by Government to actively protect and promote the rights of children and young people.

Conclusion

There are many areas that need improvement to tackle poverty and too many areas that need addressed to address the issue of homelessness.

In preparing this speech I identified eight actions Government should immediately undertake. They are to be included in the forthcoming NICCY policy on poverty which we will be passing to Government.

But I will, when discussing this with Government, also make sure to tell them about this project; a project that is offering more than support, more than advice, more than accommodation. This is a project that offers hope.

Congratulations to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive for funding the Mater Dei Family!

Congratulations to the Newington Housing Association for pushing this forward.

And congratulations to the De Paul Trust – this is truly a flagship project.