The Lord Mayor of Belfast has paid tribute to the work of The Salvation Army in helping tackle homelessness.
Councillor Arder Carson today visited the church and charity’s Centenary House, where he met residents to hear first-hand the difference the service had made to them.
The Mayor has pledged to focus on homelessness during his mayoral year – and his visit to the centre on Victoria Street was also an opportunity for him to see some of the initiatives being developed by The Salvation Army to help people get back into independent living.
One initiative is a fitness programme in the lifehouse gym that is boosting the physical and mental wellbeing of service users.
Tony O’Neill is a former service user and full-time member of staff who now helps run the programme, having completed personal training qualifications while in recovery.
Tony said: “I know from personal experience that keeping fit benefits your mental health as well as the physical side of things.
“The gym gives the service users a purpose and helps build their confidence. It allows guys to work out any issues while staying healthy and motivated.”
Tony first arrived at Centenary House in 2008 after his life spiralled out of control through drink and drug misuse. The former plasterer admitted taking drugs at the age of 13 and said that by the age of 21 he had started experiencing mental health problems.
Things got so bad that he lost his job and was made homeless before eventually being referred to Centenary House. He was appointed support workers, one of whom was Stephen Potter who is the current manager of the centre.
Tony admits he wouldn’t have been able to turn his life without the support of The Salvation Army and said: “The Salvation Army was there for me when I was at my lowest point. With the support of staff I managed to get back on my feet.
“I began doing NVQ qualifications in gym instruction and personal training and then helped set up the fitness programme for fellow service users.
“I then applied for and successfully landed a job as a relief worker and six months later I began working full-time in the project team. I’ve since managed to combine my work with studying for an NVQ in Health and Social Care.
“Earlier this year I was able to buy my first house and now have a car as well so things are going great for me at the moment.”
The Lord Mayor said: “To hear from people who, with the support of The Salvation Army, are working hard to transform their lives was very humbling. The work being done here is remarkable and I applaud everyone involved in initiatives such as these which strive to make our society more inclusive.”
Kirsten Watters, regional homelessness manager for The Salvation Army in Ireland, said: “It was an honour to welcome the Lord Mayor and let him see first-hand what we do. We were delighted to be able to highlight to him the kind of real life stories of transformation that takes place here.
“The visit was also a chance for us to continue our discussions with the Mayor about the real issues of homelessness in Belfast.
“The Salvation Army has launched a 'Seeing people not labels' campaign, in which service users from across the UK and Ireland introduce themselves under the caption ‘Homeless is not who I am.’”