The author is a QUB Pol Sci Honours graduate and has written extensively on imperialism, national liberation struggles and class issues.
The thinking and principles behind Belfast's first Wet Hostel, Brunswick House, were mighty fine and admirable. No-one should be deprived of shelter and food because of their lifestyle. Food and shelter are, after all, a right not a privilege. Many of the wet hostel's service users, Belfast's rough sleepers, would have lost any realistic choice over their lifestyle. The majority of the proposed residents of Brunswick House, would have been chronic alcoholics and/or drug addicts, suffering from an invariably fatal disease.
Similar projects had been created in Britain and in Dublin, some survive to this day and are well managed, apparently. The project was initiated by the Lee Hestia Housing Association, which later became part of the Novas Group, darlings of the Blairite policy of privatizing social services. Ideally, Brunswick House would have been a haven for Belfast's rough sleepers, wherein the short-term, they could have accessed health care, had at least one hot meal per day and got their entitlement to benefits sorted out. In the long-term, it was imagined that Brunswick House residents could then secure a place on the social housing list and through individualized care, been offered an alternative lifestyle, or at least shown that recovery from addiction was an option.
Brunswick House was to have self-contained accommodation, not the usual hostel dormitories, where residents would feel safe from the violence, that was commonplace among rough sleepers. A so-called 'wet room', which was a designated drinking zone, was to be offered to the residents while drinking in other zones was to be officially discouraged. According to the Novas mission statement, there would be an atmosphere of "high tolerance." Unfortunately, management frequently used the supposed 'high tolerance' mantra as a stick to beat staff with, as the full horror of the Brunswick House wet hostel experience, later unraveled! Residents would sign a tenancy agreement on admission that would supposedly guarantee their behavior, within certain parameters. Well, that was the theory but the reality was somewhat different, to put it mildly.
The site where Belfast's first wet hostel was situated was the aging, former Queens University Halls of Residence, in Brunswick Street, Central Belfast. Brunswick House was a 6 story building, a mere bottle throw away from the city's prestigious Europa Hotel. Prior to the building being QUB student Halls, Brunswick House had been the old War Memorial hostel, which was originally opened for veterans of World War 2. To be fair to the management, the building was old, crumbling in some places, with only a few levels habitable, due to a pigeon infestation of biblical proportions in the upper floors. The front-line staff recruited initially were well-motivated and were led to believe that they could make a difference while providing a professional duty of care.
Many of the staff recruited were graduates from various Universities or had many years of experience in the various caring professions. Staff were to act as Key-workers for the residents and advocate on their behalf on various issues that were an integral part of their lives. Support-Workers were assured that although their roles would be challenging, they would be fully supported by their line management. However, in reality, workers were treated abysmally by Brunswick House management and were left in no doubt that they were in fact, totally expendable as far as management was concerned.
Prior to the Brunswick House Wet Hostel social experiment, homeless people living in the majority of hostels in Belfast could be refused entry to their accommodation, if they arrived back even smelling of alcohol. Those found in possession of alcohol were often immediately evicted from hostel accommodation and forced to walk the streets until they could find another hostel on the 'homeless circuit' willing to take them in. Finding new hostel accommodation was no easy feat, as prospective hostel clients were interviewed about their previous hostel antecedents and potential in-taking hostels were reluctant to accept those previously evicted from other homeless accommodation. In some cases, homeless people could find themselves effectively blacklisted from the entire hostel network. Many homeless people had not had access to primary medical care for decades, some had not received their proper benefit entitlement for years. There was definitely an identifiable need and the local body responsible for providing accommodation for the homeless, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) had agreed to fund the Brunswick House experiment for a few trial years. As stated above, the principles behind Belfast's first wet hostel were admirable, even egalitarian, but the reality was a lot different.
A Vision of Hell
Within a few months of Belfast's first Wet Hostel opening, despite the best efforts of the front-line workers, Brunswick House had become a vision of Hell on earth for hostel staff, the neighbors and the residents themselves. Inexperienced, incompetent management and middle-management were the real authors of the abomination that Brunswick degenerated into. Workers could list reams of disturbing facts and incidents that staff and residents experienced, in what became Belfast's most notorious hostel. The only light relief came from the daily complaints from the local high-brow businesses, that surrounded the hostel. Nearby swish hotels, restaurants, and Wine-bar owners were scandalized by complaints from their well-heeled customers of being pawed and aggressively begged, by 'leering Wet Hostel tramps'.
When the support staff's office was open plan, workers regularly had to dodge empty drink bottles, fire extinguishers and even smaller residents being hurled at them. Small wonder it was known as 'Fort Apache the Bronx' to the night-shift workforce. Local psychiatric wards used the place as a dumping ground for their more difficult or violent patients and the Probation Service often metaphorically flushed their toilet on the place, filling the hostel with the dregs of the prisons' petty criminal and sex offender fraternity. The original target client-group, Belfast's street drinking rough-sleepers were quickly overwhelmed within the hostel by the younger, fitter and more violent criminal elements! The younger, petty criminal element preyed remorselessly on the wino fraternity and made their lives possibly much more miserable, than when they were living rough on the streets. Many of the older rough-sleepers ultimately preferred a doorway for a home, to the horrors of Brunswick House, where although they risked freezing to death in Winter, they felt much safer and were probably, less likely to meet a violent end. The renowned bearded Belfast tramp, the late Gerry Glennon, was briefly a resident of Brunswick House. However, even Mr. Glennon voted with his feet and like a drunken Moses, led many of his fellow rough sleepers out of the Wet Hostel to the relative safety of public benches and cardboard boxes. It was a real pity that Brunswick House Wet Hostel, which was initially intended for just that client group, became much too dangerous a place for Belfast's rough sleepers.
Nothing could prepare the anthropologically strange visitor for what met them on entering Brunswick House! The interior of the Wet Hostel was almost Dickensian, with a stench that floored all but the most seasoned visitors. It also had the unenviable status of being the address with statistically, the most police incidents logged in the whole of the North of Ireland. Brunswick House, also held the record for hosting by far the most 999 calls for all emergency services from one building, since statistics began to be collated. Any petty crime in a quarter-mile radius could usually be traced back to the hostel, in some way or other and even if the residents were not factually responsible, they got the blame anyway. There was nothing particularly strange in staff coming into work, only to discover during handover, that the police had been to the building perhaps 5 times during the earlier shift. Residents were regularly getting hauled out to waiting police vans, for their latest act of drunken pugilism or petty larceny. Ambulances and even the Fire Brigade were also regular callers at Brunswick House. Sometimes, they came several times in the one shift, for the same resident, who more often than not took some persuading, to get serious injuries tended to. The mortuary van was no stranger to the place either, although the residents they came for, were past making much of a fuss.
© 2019 Liam A Ryan