A reclusive “mad inventor” in Northern Ireland is harnessing the goodwill of the people of Belfast to help the local homeless community, as they face a deadly crisis.
Good Samaritans from across the city have been leaving donations of clothing and toiletries in a set of ‘Kindness Drawers’ which appeared in Victoria Street, in the centre of town, on New Year’s Eve. The drawers are unsupervised and rely on the kindness of strangers to provide essentials to vulnerable people.
People in need can freely collect anything they require from the set of 18 plastic drawers, which are decorated with messages of goodwill, as well as contact details for support services.
Formerly-homeless Belfast man Kris Nixon was approached by the individual behind the guerrilla project, in order to act as his spokesperson. The arrangement allows the inventor of the social experiment to remain anonymous.
“It’s just awesome how people have responded to it,” Kris said of the project. “There’s been no lack of empathy from Belfast people. The people of Belfast are so used to the bad news stories – not just the Troubles, but the constant political unrest here. We’ve lurched from one crisis to another. There’s a housing shortage – everyone knows this.
“Then all of a sudden, after the festive period, this little good news story pops up. And people think, ‘I wasn’t expecting that. It isn’t what I’m used to hearing – and I’ve got the opportunity to help.’ The people of Belfast have really taken to that.”
And it looks as though people are making use of the donations too. “I’ve spoken to different outreach groups in Belfast and they’re seeing service users and rough sleepers talking about it. So, so far it’s going better than we expected,” Kris added.
The appearance of the drawers has coincided with a particularly hard time for homeless people in Belfast, as three rough sleepers have died in the harsh weather since the beginning of the year. A fourth man who had been sleeping rough passed away just after he had found housing.
Reacting on social media, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness said he was “concerned” by the deaths, whilst homeless outreach charities called the situation “nightmarish”.
A spokesperson from Amethyst Outreach said the man who died last week was a regular user of their services. “This is a nightmare,” they added. “I just don’t know what else to say here. This nightmare is never-ending.”
Very sad to hear that a man died on the street in Belfast last night.Important we discuss this at today's Executive in Fermanagh. #concerned
— Martin McGuinness (@M_McGuinness_SF) February 25, 2016
Kris and his family were homeless for two years in his mid-teens after they moved from his native Belfast to Brighton. During their time in England, his mother and her partner were struggling with a drink problem – they “decided that the pub was a preference to paying rent”.
“For the next two years we moved from hostel to half-way house to B&B – anywhere the council can put you. Sometimes you’re there for three months, sometimes you’re there for two nights,” he recalled. “Especially at that age, trying to do GCSEs, it’s a complete screw-up of your system. I’d finish school for the day and I wouldn’t know where I was sleeping that night. I’d have to call my mum and say, am I going to the hostel in Brighton, or are we in a town 15 miles away?”
Kris is now a political activist on issues around poverty in Belfast. He hopes the Kindness Drawers can remove the barriers to accessing help that he experienced – and put power back in the hands of homeless people.
“Being helped is great,” he said. “Asking for help – you need to, but it’s a challenge. There was a part of me that felt uncomfortable – I wasn’t humiliated, but I was aware of the humility involved in it.
“There are lots of charities in Belfast that homeless people can go to and ask for a sleeping bag, or whatever else. That’s great, but what if the power was in homeless people’s hands? To just along and take what you need and that’s it. You don’t have to ask someone for help, you don’t need to look someone in the face and say, ‘I need something’. You can just help yourself.”
Kris was able to confirm that the person behind the Kindness Drawers is the same man who made the ‘Homeless Pod’ last year. A self-contained sleeping unit, it included a phone charging point and a radio, powered by a solar cell, and was left in the street in the same way as the Kindness Drawers. It received worldwide attention but was removed by the city council citing “safety issues”.
— The Irish News (@irish_news) January 23, 2015
“There were quite a few people got in contact from different areas – from Canada, from Singapore, from the south of Ireland – asking for the blueprint,” said Kris. “But when the council took it away, people didn’t want to get into trouble. I can understand the council’s concerns but I don’t think they’re valid.”
Some remained undeterred. In Dublin, four similar Homeless Pods were erected on 15 February, by a group called #gimmeshelterIreland. “The action can be seen as an act of charity, but more importantly it is an attempt to provoke conversation about a huge problem in our society”, their spokesperson told Irish news site Independent.ie.
— Liam O'Brien (@liamobrien2009) February 19, 2016
Of the man behind both Belfast projects, Kris added: “He’s a mad inventor. He makes things you wouldn’t expect, with the aim of helping people.”
At the time of writing the Kindness Drawers are still in place, though Belfast City Council is yet to offer an official response to them.
“I know a number of Belfast City Councillors from working on various projects and they’ve been very supportive of it – across parties, which in Northern Ireland you don’t often get,” said Kris.
South Belfast DUP councillor, Alderman Christopher Stalford offered some words of support for the project.
“I welcome this initiative,” he said. “I sincerely hope that no red-tape or action from officialdom would stifle what appears to be a genuine effort by people to help the least well off in our society.”
He added that, following the recent deaths, it is even more important that people help where they can. “In our city, the brutal reality of living rough has been brought home by the deaths of four people. These men were all someone’s son. They may have been uncles, cousins or even fathers. Those of us who have been blessed materially should do more to help.”
Local artist Dennis Kelly, a retired civil servant and current president of the Arts Society of Ulster, is one of the people to donate to the Kindness Drawers. He visited with his wife to drop off some good-quality winter coats that they no longer used.
“My wife and I had just bought some new coats. We would have normally put the old ones into Oxfam but we heard about this way of giving help directly to people who are living on the streets. We decided it would be better to put the clothing into the Kindness Drawers,” he said.
He compared the person behind the project to notoriously secretive street artist and political activist Banksy. “He’s doing something creative with this social experiment, which holds a mirror up to us as a community,” Dennis added, “and like Banksy, few people know his true identity.”
Though the Kindness Drawers are a positive way for people to help, they are clearly far from enough. The latest person to die on Belfast’s streets, a man in his 40s named online as Roy, was found in a doorway, just around the corner from the drawers.
“There is a real sense of public shame about these deaths,” said Kris. “Statutory bodies need to harness that to provide a holistic, cross-sector solution.”