Anti-Poverty Festival

Organiser Anton Glackin hopes to raise awareness of poverty and homelessness in Northern Ireland with inaugural arts festival

The newest festival to pop up in Belfast's virtually year round calendar is the Anti-Poverty Festival, launching on October 10, World Homeless Action Day. Its aim, according to founder and musician Anton Glackin, is to 'raise awareness of poverty and find solutions'.

Featuring concerts, exhibitions, serious debate and a sleeping bag donation, it is hoped that the festival will make festival goers think about why poverty remains with us in spite of all the optimistic economic forecasts. And, although they have some small, enthusiastic sponsors like Stan and Olly's, Glackin is philosophical about not necessarily breaking even in the first year.

'I've long been a fan of the Belfast Nashville Songwriting Festival,' says Glackin. 'And as somebody who's tried to help out the homeless over a period of time – for example via involvement with the Street Team in Belfast – I thought I'd see if there was anything similar to help with poverty.'

Charity and the arts have been successful bedfellows since long before Bob Geldof and Midge Ure put on Live Aid in 1985. It's often a winning formula, but it relies on willing performers. Interestingly, many of the artists coralled by Glackin in to taking part didn't need much persuasion.

Singer-songwriter Joby Fox, who is performing a set on Sunday in The Sunflower bar, explains his very personal reasons for wanting to sit down with his guitar and be counted during the festival.

'First, I wanted to do this because of the tough days we live in. I am from west Belfast and grew up in a family of ten. My father had a great job as a foreman in construction but when the Troubles started, it all went within six months to a year, so I understand about people living in a difficult reality.

'We had a lovely house, a great car and we all wore nice clothes but when he lost his job, it devastated us economically. I was about eight and I remember other things went too, we lost all our self-confidence.' Fox admits to spending a couple of weeks homeless in England in the early 1980s. 'Yes, I lived in a park in London and was also on the streets in Birmingham with my band.'

Kindness, Fox recalls, came from unexpected sources. 'My roadie was asleep on the pavement and a policeman woke him to ask him what he was doing. He said "Trying to get some sleep!" Then the policeman took him to a cafe and bought him breakfast, which was not something we were used to coming from Northern Ireland.'

Fox firmly believes that music and the arts can encourage people to think seriously about issues such as poverty and homelessness in the 21st century. 'Of course, although art is safe and respected and not a political campaign. As Tony Blair said, when things start to affect the middle classes, that's when something happens, and I think we're seeing that now. But I'll be performing some songs which relate to the situation. Musically, I go back to The Bank Robbers and the punk era.'

The Anti-Poverty Festival also features a lecture on solutions to poverty given by Queen's University academic, Mike Tomlinson, who comments: 'You can't remove hundreds of millions of pounds from benefits and talk about solutions to poverty as they're doing in the Executive in terms of things like play areas and parenting programmes.

'To tackle child poverty we need to maximise child household incomes directly or provide services that reduce the cash outgoings for parents. Welfare reform is based on a prejudicial ideology that "the poor work harder if you pay them less and the rich work harder if you pay them more". It won't make people work harder but it will make more people hungry and less able to work.'

One member of the group of experts debating the topic afterwards is Sandra Moore, director of homelessness services for the Welcome Organisation. Moore indicates that people often underestimate the problem of poverty in our society.

'The level of poverty experienced here is significant. Income levels in Northern Ireland have decreased in real terms over consecutive years and one fifth of the population is in relative poverty in any given year, with nearly a quarter in absolute poverty before considering housing costs.'

Moore adds that child poverty levels here are among the UK's worst, with up to a third of children in Derry~Londonderry, Belfast and Strabane living in extreme need. She agrees that art is a good way of raising awareness. 'Most art contains some form of social commentary whether it be in protest lyrics, the lampooning of particular attitudes or glorifying some form of beauty in oils.' 

There are also some creative and left field offerings. South American artist Erik O'Eir, who has lived in Dublin since 2002, will be exhibiting his sculptures, which replicate the ancient art found in Inishmore, in a one day show on Saturday at Anto Brennan's Gallery on Donegall Street.

O'Eir reveals that he also has a particular reason for wanting to exhibit. 'As a freelance artist, you're always at the risk of being in that poverty zone. But having grown up in a household in South Africa with an alcoholic father, and no support structures, I know about poverty.'

The Anti-Poverty Festival runs in venues across Belfast from October 10 – 12. Visit the Welcome Organisation website for information on homelessness services in Northern Ireland.