COMPLAINTS over a hostel set up by the Housing Executive to ensure no-one sleeps rough during the Coronavirus crisis have reached the door of the Health Minster.
The shelter in Portstewart is being run by a guest house operator left with empty premises as a result of the lockdown.
But it has prompted a wave of objections from neighbouring residents who insist they are living in fear of what they claim is the occupants' anti-social behaviour and failure to observe social distancing.
They have enlisted support of councillors and one of them – the SDLP's Angela Mulholland - has written to Minister Robin Swan demanding tests for the hostel's clients.
Writing on behalf of herself and DUP councillor Mark Fielding, she states that neighbours are living with “immense distress”.
She adds: “I am being inundated with concerns about this situation. People and local traders are really scared.
“The wider community is having to witness anti-social incidents but it is the fear of spreading Covid-19 that is causing the greatest concern.”
Police have indicated to the Chronicle that they are aware of the residents’ allegations.
Chief Inspector Ian Magee said: “A number of concerns have been raised to police about a hostel in the Kinora Terrace area of Portstewart.
“We are working with our colleagues in the NIHE and the council and will continue to liaise with them going forward.”
The Housing Executive insists the premises address “significant increased demand” for temporary accommodation during the Covid-19 crisis.
They also say clients are carefully managed and moved on into permanent homes as soon as possible.
A spokesperson said, “We have statutory responsibility for homelessness in Northern Ireland and when people present to us we must carry out a homelessness assessment.
“We have a responsibility to provide temporary accommodation to individuals while we complete our enquiries.
“As a response to Covid-19, we have seen a significant increase in demand for emergency temporary accommodation as we strive to ensure that no one is sleeping rough on the streets in Northern Ireland.
“As a result of social distancing requirements, the number of spaces in voluntary hostels has been reduced.”
NIHE said a number of different types of accommodation are in use, in various locations across Northern Ireland, to allow it to perform its statutory duty.
These include traditional hostel provision, single-let accommodation in the private rented sector and bed and breakfasts.
“Hotels are also used, where required,” added the spokesperson.
He concluded: “Placements in these types of accommodation are carefully managed and we move people on from these arrangements as soon as is practical.”
It's understood the council itself has told residents the change of use from guest house to refuge accommodation was legitimate under the emergency Coronavirus regulations.
Residents contacted by the Chronicle were not prepared to speak on the record.
However, the paper is aware of complaints and claims of glass strewn street, begging, loud drunken behaviour and fighting in the street.
One resident said neighbours were living in fear: “I acknowledge they are offering accommodation to vulnerable people but we are paying the price.
“Portstewart is a small holiday town and because of the lockdown it has a large proportion of elderly people.
“Unlike, say Belfast or Ballymena, we are not able to absorb this many people.”
The Chronicle approached the guest house owners but, so far has yet to receive a response.
In a joint statement the SDLP councillor Angela Mulholland and the DUP's Mark Fielding insisted they did not wish to conduct a witch hunt.
“We are clearly concerned about safeguarding the rights of vulnerable homeless people but we are also worried about the affect this hostel is having on the community,” the statement said.
“In particular we share residents’ concerns over enforcement of social distancing and the risk many of the hostel's clients present to local people. They need to be tested to alleviate fear in the community.
“Many of the older people in the area feel intimidated by the antisocial behaviour on display. We are encouraging anyone who witnesses this to contact police.
“In the meantime we will both continue liaising with police, council officers and the Housing Executive to resolve the matter.”