Independent councillors set up new homeless project in Newry

March 29, 2016

A local Independent councillor is set to draw on his own experiences in order to tackle the issue of youth homelessness and “sofa surfing” across the district.  Kevin McAteer has teamed up with his fellow Indy/Alliance councillor Patrick Brown in setting up a unique homeless project to help local people who are homeless or under threat of becoming homeless to get themselves back into employment.

Tuff Cycle NI is a new initiative for Northern Ireland spearheaded by the pair in order to empower homeless people in the area to improve their employability, skills and wellbeing. The project aims to also recognise and offer assistance to those living in a situation which is often referred to as “invisible” or “hidden” homelessness as those affected by it are not living on the streets but are relying on the generosity of friends and family for somewhere to sleep. Tuff Cycle hopes to equip homeless people with the tools and resources they need to make sustainable, positive change in their lives.  Workshops and advice sessions aim to better enable people to take steps into employment, training or education whilst also reducing social isolation and facilitating the personal development of those affected.

For Kevin, who went through a period of “sofa-surfing” himself, the project is something he is fiercely passionate about as he has first hand experience of the vicious cycle which can affect employment prospects and in turn any hope of securing a permanent home.

“I used to be homeless and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Kevin told The Examiner.

“I sofa surfed for about three months and, mentally, it’s a really hard thing to go through and an extremely difficult situation to get out off.

“When I was going through it I used to go to Newry Library every day to use their computer to search for jobs.  I got an interview for my current job and had to borrow and shirt and tie from a friend for the interview,” added the Councillor.

“Luckily, I got the job and used the first month’s wage to put a deposit down on private rented accommodation, so I was able to get myself out of the cycle of sofa surfing, but it definitely wasn’t easy.”

Kevin says the message to young people in the same predicament is that the Tuff Cycle programme will provide all the help and support it can, with workshops on interview skills and CV writing and advice and guidance on housing and other issues, but successfully escaping the sofa-surfing cycle requires total commitment from participants in the project.

“I’ve already reached out to a few people in this situation who I’m trying to help and the first thing I advise is that we can help as much as we can, point people in the right direction but you have to be committed to pulling yourself out of this hole. Ultimately you will be the one that pulls yourself out of this situation. We will be helping people to help themselves.”

Tuff Cycle is the brainchild of Kevin’s colleague, Independent councillor Patrick Brown, who set the project up as a student in Sheffield, where it has continued to operate over the last few years.  When Patrick heard about Kevin’s personal experience of homelessness the pair decided to join forces to try to help people in Northern Ireland living in this situation.

“We’re starting off the project in Newry and if it’s a success here we hope to expand our reach into other cities, like Belfast, where the homeless issue has reached crisis levels,” explained Kevin.

“There is very little in Newry for homeless people and there are a lot of hidden homeless here.  Just because they’re not sleeping on the streets doesn’t change the fact that they don’t have a secure roof over their heads and instead are relying on friends to put them up on a sofa or floor.  That’s a tough existence that can really drag you down if you don’t have access to resources and programmes like this which can help.”

Tuff Cycle has been funded from the Big Lottery project and the councillors are currently looking at premises in the city to house the organisation.  Even in its infancy, the project has received very positive feedback and Kevin says they have been inundated with offers from volunteers hoping to work for the programme.

“You only have to look at the news to see that people are dying on the streets in Belfast and I think people are beginning to realise this is a massive issue.  I’m a firm believer that every one of us is just a few pay packets away from being homeless. Tuff Cycle aims to help those living in this isolating and soul destroying situation, to escape the cycle of despair into the security of a home to build a life in.”

For more information on the service and to keep up to date on its progress, follow the  newly created Tuff Cycle NI facebook page.