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Dublin: 19 °C Thursday 19 July, 2018
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'Mammy. I don't smile much anymore and I don't know why': Homelessness through the eyes of a child

The number of homeless children in ireland has quadrupled in three years.

EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Alexis misses having a home.

She misses being able to play in the garden with her friends and having her own bedroom.

During the summer, Alexis, her parents and her brother moved around through five different apartments, staying a short time at each one.

They became homeless in April after the home they had lived in for five years in Cork city was sold and they couldn’t find a new place that they could afford.

They have been trying to find a place to live since, but it has been difficult and the longer they stay homeless, the more it takes its toll.

Two weeks ago, Alexis turned to her mother Marie and said:

“Mammy. I don’t smile much anymore.

No. I used to smile all the time and I really don’t smile much anymore and I don’t know why.

Marie says that hearing those words broke her heart:

I just said to her: ‘We’re having a pretty tough time, honey and we’re sticking together and we’re going to be okay but that’s probably why you’re not smiling’.

Marie and her husband try to keep a brave face on for their children but that as the weeks have turned to months she can feel her hope of getting a home ebbing away.

“So you try not to feel down and to put on a brave face,” she says.

But it’s very hard trying to answer to your children and trying to explain to them how or why this is happening when you can’t actually comprehend it yourself as a grown up.

Marie and her family aren’t alone in this. Why are so many families homeless now in Ireland? And what is being done to help them?

Family homelessness

Alexis is one of close to 3,000 children in families who are homeless across Ireland.
Latest figures show that there were 1,429 families with 2,973 children staying in state-funded emergency accommodation in July.

In July 2014 there were 344 families with 749 children staying in state-funded emergency accommodation – meaning the number of homeless families and children has quadrupled in three years.

Housing need has far outstripped supply in recent years, driving costs up across the country. This has increasingly pushed people out of the housing market and into homelessness.

The overwhelming majority of homeless families and children are in the Dublin region. As of July, over half were living in commercial hotels or bed and breakfasts in Dublin.

As the number of homeless families has grown, the State has struggled to care for them adequately.

Families – often with very young children – have had to share beds in single hotel rooms for months at a time. Usually the family has to source this accommodation themselves and it’s paid for by the council, with families sometimes paying a contribution.

In many cases these hotels would have no cooking or cleaning facilities.

Mould, damp, drug use, bed bug infestations, rodents and anti-social behaviour are some of the issues that have been raised about this sort of accommodation.

Numerous children’s rights groups, non-governmental organisations and independent overseers have warned that long-term homelessness can have a devastating effect on children.

Children’s charity the ISPCC has expressed its grave concerns repeatedly over the past number of years. Fergus Finlay, CEO of charity Barnardos, called family homelessness “crisis of unprecedented scale for children in Ireland”.

90317158_90317158 Fergus Finlay said child homelessness was a growing crisis. Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child also said that it was “deeply concerned” at the long periods of time families were spending in inappropriate emergency accommodation and the effect it was having on the wellbeing of children.

“If you’re cooped up in room all day and the only outlet is school and you’re having to get busses to and from school it has to have an impact,” says Pauline Burke, project manager with the Focus Ireland family team.

Burke works with families in homelessness every day and says that she sees the same issues coming up all the time.

“Nutrition, education, socialisation, family relationships, the child’s behaviour are all big issues,” says Burke.

These are the recurring issues that are coming up – we have parents that are at the end of their tether and are losing hope.

Burke says that the longer a family remains in homelessness, the more entrenched they become and the harder it is to get out. In her opinion it is vitally important to try to get them back into secure housing as soon as possible.

“It’s important to try to lessen the impact of homelessness for the child,” said Burke.

“The less time children can stay in homelessness the less of a memory they’ll have from it.

It’s very hard to hear a child saying, ‘when are we going home?’ and for them home is a hotel.

shutterstock_457643590-2 Source: Shutterstock/TinnaPong

Losing hope

These issues are encountered every day in the individual cases of the thousands of homeless children across the country.

Marie and Alexis and their family have been homeless for five months now and already they can feel themselves losing hope.

When they were made homeless, Marie was working full-time in catering but has since had to take time off due to the stress of their situation and committing to finding somewhere to live.

“It’s hard that you feel like when you start to engage with homeless services that it’s a whole new world that you’ve never experienced,” she says.

It’s just full-on all the time.

The family have been trying to find somewhere within their price range but Marie says that any viewing for a home to rent turns into “a bidding war”.

They are currently living in a holiday home just outside of Cork city. They stayed for a short time in hotel accommodation and Marie says that this is better. Still though, she says it’s far from a proper home for her family.

shutterstock_383244523 House prices have skyrocketed recently in Cork city. Source: Shutterstock/Madrugada Verde

For Alexis, not having her friends around her or a garden to play in are her main worries.

“It’s just a bit lonely,” she says.

And I miss having friends. Having a home – I just miss everything.

Alexis isn’t alone in wanting to have a normal childhood while homeless.

Donal* (13) is homeless with his family in Dublin. He says that three of them live between one room and that he never gets to see his old friends.

“We are all stuck in one room.  Three of us and it’s not great.  I miss having somewhere to play football,” he says.

We just want to get a proper home. None of us like it here. You are always worried about what people are thinking. It is really stressful.

Susan* (15) is also homeless in Dublin and misses having her own room.

“I really miss having my own room. I used to go there and chill out listening to music, chatting to my mates. I don’t know what is going to happen,” she says.

“We are living day by day. My mum is great but I can see it’s  having a big impact on her as well as the rest of us.

I hope we don’t have to spend another Christmas like this. You don’t feel like you are really living properly.  You are in limbo… waiting. It gets me really down but you have to have hope it will end.

Homelessness campaigner Erica Fleming spent almost two years homeless in Dublin with her daughter Emily.

She too experienced first-hand the loss of hope that comes with living in emergency accommodation for a long period of time and having to move from place to place endlessly.

F-_iz3Ve Erica Fleming with her daughter Emily

“As far as I’m concerned the child is already going through a traumatic experience,” says Fleming.

“You don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know how long you’re going to be there.

A child looks to their parent for guidance and love and reassurance… If an adult doesn’t have control of a situation then obviously the child is going to know then the child is going to pick up in that.

From hotels to hubs

As the housing crisis has intensified, and the number of homeless families has increased month-on-month, the government has come under increasing pressure to come up with solutions.

Rebuilding Ireland – the government’s Housing Action Plan – was launched last year to much fanfare. However, it has since been strongly criticised for its failure to adequately address housing need.

The plan contained a commitment to end the use of hotel and B&B accommodation for families by July of this year.

This was to be achieved through the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) and a rapid build housing programme which would deliver 1,500 new homes quickly.

This became a key goal of former Housing Minister Simon Coveney, who reiterated it on numerous occasions. In June the government admitted that the target would not be met.

HAP – which is paid to landlords by local councils on behalf of tenants – has been found on numerous occasions to not be sufficient in meeting people’s housing needs.

Meanwhile, the rapid build programme did not deliver the proposed number of new homes in time.

simon-22 Simon Coveney made getting families out of hotels one of his key housing objectives. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

(New Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has since dropped the commitment to end hotel use. After falling for a number of months, latest figures show that the number of families staying in hotels is again on the rise)

To the end of achieving the hotel goal, the Housing Department introduced the new ‘family hub’ model of group family accommodation in Dublin.

Family hubs aim to provide cooking, cleaning and onsite support services for families (making them a more attractive option than commercial hotels).

90425495_90425495-2 Lynam's Hotel O'Connell Street which is being converted into a family hub. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The hubs have been cautiously welcomed by NGO officials. The ISPCC, Focus Ireland and others have said they are vastly preferrable to families living long-term in hotels.

However, Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) warned that the hubs could “normalise” family homelessness.

While a Maynooth University report into the hubs said that they could cause “significant harm to families and particularly to the well-being of children who stay any length of time in emergency accommodation”.

The #mynameis campaign was launched last month by homeless community organisation Inner City Helping Homeless. The purpose of the campaign is to highlight the situation of every homeless child in the country.

“We don’t want 50 families using the one fridge, cooking in the one kitchen, and a timeframe around when they can come and go and what they can do,” ICHH CEO Anthony Flynn said.

“It’s direct provision… You eat at this time, you drink at this time, you go to bed at this time.

Okay, the hubs are fluffy – they’re great, they’re colourful … It’s not where we want children.

original (1) Anthony Flynn and others at the launch of the #mynamei campaign. Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Solutions 

Yesterday, Minister Murphy announced a number of measures to address the spiralling crisis.

These centred on increasing housing builds, providing additional supports for families and pumping more funding into essential services and provisions.

However, opposition politicians and numerous housing experts have said that without a proper public housing building programme to deliver new homes, the housing and homelessness crisis is going to continue to worsen.

For Marie, building social housing seems to be the only way to help her family and others like them stop becoming homeless.

“It’s frightening. I fear for the future and the thought of what’s going to happen.

“I want to be back in housing, back in work and contributing to the tax system. There just has to be a better way than this.

“They love reducing us to figures and statistics so if they want to talk numbers, let’s talk numbers.

How much have you pumped into emergency accommodation in the last 24 months? And what could you have built and done for families with that money and gotten us into housing and contributing to back to society.

For Alexis, she can’t understand why her family is homeless.

“I don’t think that it’s fair that we’re all homeless and that this is happening,” she says.

Because it’s just not right and we all deserve a home: me and my family and everyone. We just deserve a home.
*Some names have been changed in order to protect the children’s identities 

Read: Vacant houses: Varadkar says that council staff are casting doubt on official CSO stats

Read: ‘Will they think we’re scum?’: Homeless school student opens up about living in a hotel

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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