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In 2007, Kerry Haddock was living in the Seven Towers high rise development, north Belfast, with her twin 5-year old daughters. She remembers the time as being very lonely. The housing conditions were poor and she experienced both dampness and raw sewage regularly coming up her bath tub and sinks. When Kerry reported the problems to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive – her landlord - the problems never seemed to get sorted.
“People think that loneliness is just about being on your own – being lonely, but its not”, says Kerry. “It’s about fighting all of these battles for your family on your own and getting nowhere.”
At the time, a small number of Seven Towers residents had gotten together with human rights organisation, Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), to campaign for improved conditions. Kerry recalls “two people called to my door one evening. One was a resident called Nadine I had seen around, and the other was an organiser with PPR. They explained how a group of people who were experiencing dampness, sewage, lack of play space for kids, etc were going to meet up and see how they could make the Housing Executive and the government make our right to housing real. I didn’t wait around and went to the first meeting.”
At the meetings, the Seven Towers residents discussed their problems and PPR helped them to research what their human rights were and what the government should be doing to address these problems. Residents then selected their priorities and drew up a survey where they could monitor how many people were impacted in their community by these human rights abuses.
“Sometimes you can question yourself, wondering ‘are there enough of us to get things done?’”, Kerry explains. “We started with only 6 people. The key thing is not to hold off until you think you have enough people – if you’re doing positive things, other people will join in.”
Carrying out the door-to-door surveys, Kerry says, was a bit “nerve racking”.
“You end up going to a lot of people’s doors that you don’t know and sometimes you don’t get a lot of people in. You can knock on 10 and only get an answer from 1. But don’t be put off – talking to people is the best way to find out problem, meet your neighbours and get more people involved. The best thing is to be natural – if you look too official people won’t trust you. If they know you’re on their side and are trying to make improvements – they will.”
Kerry and the Seven Towers group achieved successes in 18 months that would not have seemed possible. A new sewage system was installed, a 10 year pigeon waste build up behind the ventilation panels on floor landings was completely removed, a large number of families with small children were re-housed into appropriate accommodation – including Kerry and her daughters.
But Kerry has remained active in housing rights campaigns:
“We definitely got people listening and got the attention of the Housing Executive and the government Minister. They knew we were not going away as long as our human rights were being abused. That was definitely down to ordinary residents learning about and being supported to use their human rights to hold people to account and make real changes.”
“The whole process really builds up your confidence. You learn how to make people stop ignoring you and your family or community. A lot of the time, politicians and officials wanted to talk with the ‘professionals’, not deal directly with real people living with problems. Through this process we learned how to present our information. We spoke at public conferences. We went to the media and had many meetings with the Minister and civil servants. But all of this was only good because it improved conditions for people.”
Kerry is still involved today and the Seven Towers group now organises with residents experiencing poor housing conditions and homelessness right across Belfast.