COLD. Hungry. Uncomfortable… Missing home.
These are just some of the words that local people used on Friday night, when they described what it felt like to sleep rough on the streets of Omagh to highlight the heartbreaking plight of homelessness.
Understandably, the 23-strong volunteers for charity, Shelter NI were feeling the chill. It was 12.30am on Saturday morning when I joined them on their mission, and while it was near pitch black, you could see your breath lingering in the air.
The male and female volunteers from Omagh, Strabane and even Belfast explained that it had begun to drizzle on them, too, when they began their 12 hour stint which ran from 7pm on Friday to 7am on Saturday morning.
If you were out on Friday night, you couldn’t have missed them: The group of all ages were huddled up in a giant bunch right outside Danske Bank shivering in their winter coats, sitting mercifully on thin blankets and clinging onto their sleeping bags for warmth.
The volunteers’ central location was strategic, peaking the interest of all passers by – particularly as homelessness is rife in Northern Ireland. And worse: It’s on the increase.
“It’s very tough being homeless,” Ania Goncalves, administrative officer of Shelter NI, explained to me on the night.
“This is the first time that I have done a sleepout, and now I can see how truly lucky I am to have a nice, warm place that I can call home.
“But the problem is, in Northern Ireland, there are too many people that don’t.
“The main reason for this event is to raise awareness for homelessness: The aim of Shelter NI is to end homelessness and poor housing conditions here for good.”
Ania explained that there was so much more to homelessness than meets the eye.
“It is emotionally draining and physically tough,” she said.
“And homelessness is not just rough sleeping.
“There are a lot of homeless families in other situations, such as living in hostels and B&Bs, sofa surfing or living with friends and relatives.
“Thankfully the people of Omagh have been very receptive of our cause,” she added.
“A lot of people have come over to us, listened to the issues of homelessness, and donated. Our fantastic volunteers have also raised so much money for us. We are overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity.”
For Sinn Féin MLA, Catherine Kelly, the 12-hour sleepout was important because it helped to raise more than £2,000 for Shelter NI and the Omagh Slate Project, both of which help young people in housing crisis.
She was joined on the night by party colleagues Órfhlaith Begley MP, and local councillors, Marty McColgan and Stephen McCann.
“It was a wet and bitter cold night, but it gave us all first-hand experience of the terrible plight faced by many each and every night while we lay warmly tucked up in our beds,” Ms Kelly said.
“Homelessness has many different causes, but increasingly throughout Ireland and further afield we are witnessing major spikes in the figures, primarily due to the lack of affordable social housing.
“And key to addressing this issue in the North is the need for the Department for Communities to prioritise investment in social housing.”
On behalf of Shelter NI, Ania Goncalves has expressed her thanks to everyone who took part in the sleepout, and to all who kindly donated to the important cause.