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'Childhood is short and we are robbing it from thousands of children'

Accepting, without ambition to change, the numbers now living in emergency accommodation is fatal to tackling the problem, writes Cliodhna O’Neill of the ISPCC.

Cliodhna O'Neill

IT IS NOW one year since the government failed to achieve its self-imposed deadline to cease the use of hotels and B&Bs as emergency accommodation for homeless children.

This is compounded by the government failing to set a new deadline, or make meaningful efforts to cease the practice. This is an abject failure which is impacting on thousands of children, and must be revisited as a matter of urgency.

Childhood is short.

When Rebuilding Ireland (the government’s action plan on housing and homelessness) was announced with fanfare, one of the key issues was the number of children living in hotels and B&Bs, and the impact this was having on their family lives and their childhood.

The plan set out a clear objective: to ensure that by mid-2017 hotels would only be used in limited circumstances for emergency accommodation for families.

This was universally welcomed by homelessness bodies, child protection and children’s rights advocates, with real hope that the hugely detrimental impact of this practice on children’s lives was finally being recognised.

There was discussion in the media on the impact of homelessness on children, there
was hopeful approval that this would be dealt with. There was watchful anticipation each month over the direction of the figures, up and down.

In mid-June 2017, a spokesperson for the Housing Department said that the government remained “fully committed” to the objective.

TheJournal.ie reported the spokesperson as saying, “We must be ambitious in addressing this social issue and while it is acknowledged that it is a challenging
objective, given the continuing numbers of those presenting as homeless, progress is being made.”

This wasn’t that surprising, as the figures had not been reducing in the way it was hoped.

What was utterly astonishing was when ‘government sources’ were quoted as saying that it was unlikely a new target would be set ‘because of the spike in those presenting as homeless’.

This translates as, ‘We’ve found out that it is hard, so we decided not to set a goal anymore’.

Organisations supporting people who have found themselves homeless and organisations
supporting children were of one voice in describing this as unacceptable.

Yet there was little enough reporting of this, as focus shifted to family hubs, to housing delivery, to rent pressure zones – all of which are important aspects of the housing crisis.

But for children, whose childhoods are slipping away, living in environments known to be unsuitable, with all of the negative impacts on their lives, accountability was not pursued.

We are still trying to fully uncover the full impact that living in this type of unsuitable
accommodation has on children and childhood. But we know that there is no space to be a child.

No adequate space to do homework, no adequate space to play.

Imagine a four-year-old with no space to run around, to skip, to cartwheel.

The lack of cooking facilities means a limited, often nutrition-deficient diet.

Sharing washing and bathroom facilities with many others, often strangers, brings another raft of child protection and welfare concerns.

This week research commissioned by the Children’s Rights Alliance found that the basic needs of children experiencing homelessness – nutrition, adequate rest and good health – are not being met.

The report spoke to parents who stated that their children were frequently absent from school as a result of poor diet, lack of rest and poor living conditions.

Just four years ago it was unthinkable that there would be this level of child homelessness.

Shockingly, children now living on a long-term basis in emergency accommodation has become a new norm.

Monthly figures hover around the 3,500 mark, the most recent spiking to 3,826.

We cannot allow this level to now become the norm.

The March figures reported by the Dublin Region Homelessness Executive of children in the Dublin area living in B&B and hotel emergency accommodation are now at about 1,615.

More recent figures are not yet available. National figures of children in emergency accommodation are published monthly, but these don’t make it clear how many are in hotels and B&Bs, as opposed to other types of emergency accommodation.

The DRHE routinely published these figures; however, their recent recommendation to publish data on a quarterly basis is concerning and can only make the process less transparent.

There was controversy recently over how the statistics reporting the numbers of people who are homeless are compiled, with disagreements between central government and local authorities.

This controversy didn’t address one aspect – the reporting of children merely as ‘dependents’, with no further information.

It is clear that the needs of a six-month old baby, a five year-old, a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old are different. Yet, for the purposes of the State, they are all ‘dependants’, and it has been made clear to children’s organisations when raising this.

They aren’t homeless children, they are in the care of their parents’ has been a mantra facing homeless agencies and children’s organisations in meetings and discussion.

The pre-budget process will contain figures on numbers of units to be built, the incentives for these, and the numbers of family hubs to be developed. Hubs are an important part of the solution, if they are used for their purpose, as short-term, appropriate, emergency accommodation, rather than becoming long-term housing in the absence of available housing supply.

But will the budget process have any ambition to actually achieve the goal of only using this accommodation in limited circumstances?

Setting targets, and being accountable, is a fundamental part of governance. Failing to set targets, so that accountability can be avoided isn’t something that would not be acceptable in business, and it shouldn’t be acceptable for children’s futures.

In other jurisdictions, including our neighbours Scotland, where this same challenge was faced several years ago, a bold decision was taken. The use of emergency B&B accommodation for children for a period of longer than two weeks was outlawed in 2004.

Because of this, measures to ensure it didn’t happen were put in place. Because of this, the practice all but ceased, and in 2017 Scotland reduced the allowable time period to one week.

Figures show some breaches in the time since the amendment; however a quarter of local authorities in Scotland did not use B&Bs or hotels at all in the period April 2017 to March 2018 and prior to the reduction, the use of such accommodation for more than 14 days was minimal.

Any student will tell you: targets matter.

Recognising the need for change is central to achieving.

Accepting, without ambition to change, the numbers now living in emergency accommodation is fatal to tackling the problem.

This abject failure to recognise children’s individual rights and to take action to prevent the blight of thousands of childhoods must not continue.

Cliodhna O’Neill is the Director of Policy and Communications at the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC).

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