Sophia Ervine is the Housing Executive’s Assistant Area Manager for the South Down area and sits on the Newry, Mourne and Down Intercultural Forum.
Here, she outlines what services are offered to Black and Minority Ethnic communities living in Housing Executive areas.
As a social housing landlord, we are committed to building stronger communities and making a difference through fairness, passion and expertise.We want everyone to be able to live in an affordable, safe and warm home, including those from our ethnic minority communities and we do not want them to feel left behind. We work in partnership with our tenants to ensure that everyone has access to a good affordable home in a safe and healthy community. I have sat on Newry, Mourne and Down’s Intercultural Forum since late last year and it is an honour to be able to hold this position and have an input. Through my role in the forum, I want to be able to identify the needs of BME/BAME communities living within our district and show what services the Housing Executive has to offer. I also want to be on hand to provide guidance and keep in touch with what is going on in the local area in terms of housing needs and support for these communities.

Through our local office, the Housing Executive offers a ‘BIG Word’ service, which is tailored for BME /BAME communities, and we can signpost referrals to Artur Kmiecik, our local Social Inclusion Officer. We provide this service for people whose first language is not English and we are proud to say it has been running for 20 years, with excellent outcomes for those who need it. It is an essential service for not only our tenants, but also for people who are in need of a new home and require help with their applications or other housing documentation. Another service we provide through our local office to help support BME/BAME communities is that we can signpost people to a range of services with the Home Office. Through this guidance, we are again offering another outlet where they can receive assistance with status applications and referrals to support groups within their own communities. Some people in these communities do not have the skills to log onto computers due to language barriers, and so in those cases we would provide signposting to local charities in Newry such as the Bolster Community who can help with these skills. The Housing Executive also recently published its new Irish Travellers Accommodation Strategy and we pride ourselves on offering a sense of belonging and security to this community. This five-year strategy sets out plans to provide Irish Travellers with access to affordable, good quality, culturally appropriate housing accommodation. From time-to-time, we would carry out visits to Traveller sites and determine with this community if there is a need for permanent or emergency housing applications that we can help to support. I also sit on a Travellers forum for Housing Executive representation, and here we spend time looking at some of the sites where there may be issues – and we look at ways in which we can resolve these.

We can also signpost BME/BAME communities to support services such as foodbanks and the likes of the St Vincent de Paul Society for additional resources they may need. Although we do this for minority groups, this service is for everyone who presents himself or herself to us in need and requires additional support in the local community. Across Northern Ireland there are people who sleep rough, even here in Newry City, we do have issues with homelessness on the streets. During Covid-19, a memorandum was introduced called ‘Everyone in’ ‘Memorandum of Understanding’, and is running until this September through public funds. The Housing Executive is committed to helping get people off the streets and through this memorandum on a local level, we were able to offer homeless people bed and breakfast accommodation. This was a fantastic service and one that we were very proud to be able to deliver for people who are the most vulnerable within our society. Our ‘Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme’ (VPRS) also offers humanitarian protection for five years and financial assistance to specific Syrian nationals. This scheme helps to settle refugees when they arrive and authorities are required to make necessary arrangements so they can settle comfortably into life here. Through this scheme, we have been able to resettle and rehome vulnerable families and individuals in the local council area – who have arrived into Northern Ireland with nothing. My role on the forum helps us to ensure we are providing a better service to everyone and supporting those within minority communities on a number of different levels.

Sophia Ervine, Assistant Area manager, Housing Executive – Newry