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Sunday 26 March 2023 Dublin: 7°C
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# Homelessness
Government has 'lost its way' on child poverty, says Ombudsman for Children
Ireland is one of just five other EU countries that has had above average numbers of children at risk of poverty for ten consecutive years.

IRELAND’S OMBUDSMAN FOR Children has described the government’s record on child poverty as “shameful” and said “we should all hang our heads in shame” at the extent of the problem.

Dr Niall Muldoon, who heads the statutory office responsible for promoting children’s rights and welfare, said the government is failing to prioritise vulnerable children and continues to miss its own targets to reduce child poverty. He said the government had “lost (its) way” on the issue.

While EU and national poverty measurements differ, since 2010, the number of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion in Ireland, the main indicator of measuring poverty in the EU, has been above the EU average. Ireland is one of five EU countries that have been above this average for ten consecutive years. The other countries are Romania, Spain, Bulgaria and Greece. 

“I think even the fact that we’re above the [EU] average should be shameful to us… If we look at our income, our outputs and our financial security, we’re in good shape, very good shape… There are countries that prioritise [children] and make sure that children are not in poverty. We need to do that and catch up”, Dr. Muldoon said.

Dr Muldoon has previously called on the Government to enshrine in the Constitution the right to housing for everyone in Ireland and to commit to eliminating family homelessness within five years.

He said: “We need the government to work together and put children’s rights first…We’ve got to find a social contract that says ‘we see you as children having the right to have a safe, secure tenancy, not being at the whim of a tenant or landlord.”

More than 2,500 children will be without a home this Christmas, with many staying in hostels, B&Bs and family hubs. 

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said at the weekend that he expects the number of homeless children to increase in the coming months, but told the Irish Examiner that he is doing “absolutely everything in [his] power to improve the situation”. 

Homeless figures have been rising every month since May after initially dropping at the beginning of the pandemic due to the temporary rent freeze and eviction ban ordered by the Government. The removal of these measures in August saw the number of homeless children quickly rise again and reach 14.5% (2,513) in October.

Barnardos, the country’s largest children’s charity, says the official figures on child homelessness do not record the thousands more children who are homeless and go largely unnoticed. These are the “hidden homeless”, children who sleep on floors and couches of friends and relatives and whose living situation is precarious but is not recorded. It estimates that for every one homeless family there is another one in hidden homelessness.

shutterstock_477030532 Shutterstock / Xavier_S81 Shutterstock / Xavier_S81 / Xavier_S81

Retired Barnardos CEO Fergus Finlay says it is the emotional damage of homelessness on children that disturbs him the most.

“I think at the end of the day what we will find is (that) the emotional damage done by homelessness is even worse than the mental health damage, the cognitive damage, the intellectual damage, the absence of learning,” he said. 

“I think the hurt of homelessness will be the thing that will stick the longest in a child’s heart. Children are hurt by homelessness and I find that almost unbearable and certainly unforgivable.”

Research by the Royal College of Physicians (RCPI) found that “the experience of poor housing has been shown to increase the risk of severe physical and mental ill-health and disability during childhood and early adulthood by up to 25%”.

In November 2020, a HSE and RCPI joint report highlighted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on children living in poverty, saying:

The quality of life for children marginalised by poverty, inadequate housing, parental mental health problems or addiction, and cultural differences, has been significantly worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Dr Briege Casey from DCU’s School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health, says homelessness is hugely traumatic for children.

“(It’s) an experience that has a long-lasting psychological effect that is a real shock to the whole psychological integrity of a person. And it’s much more profound when that happens in childhood.”

‘He did have a hard childhood’

These “long-lasting” psychological and emotional effects are a constant cause of concern among many former homeless parents, including Mary*.

Mary, 36, first became homeless in 2002, one year before the birth of her first-born, John*.

Over the course of 16 years, Mary dipped in and out of different forms of accommodation and homelesness, spending a period of two years in emergency accommodation with her children, before finding her “forever home” in 2018.

In this 16-year period, Mary gave birth to and raised three out of her seven children, with John spending the longest period in homlessness.

Mary highlights how John’s mental health was at its worst during their time in emergency accommodation, describing the then-ten-year-old’s mental state as “depressed”.

She attributes a lot of John’s present-day emotional struggles to his experience of homelessness as a child, adding that his high absence rate from school, alongside his poor adherence with the Youthreach programme, causes Mary to worry about her son’s future.

“John unfortunately missed out because he did have, in my eyes, a hard childhood, because when we were out or looking for money or hungry, he was being dragged around.

“John has battled with anger issues and trust issues… I think John had to grow up a lot quicker when he was in homelessness,” Mary said, adding that John would have gone down “a bad road” a long time ago if her partner wasn’t so strict on him.

shutterstock_1633527865 Shutterstock / Tatyana Soares Shutterstock / Tatyana Soares / Tatyana Soares

Despite exiting homelessness three years ago, Mary knows the reality facing thousands of Irish families living in homelessness this Christmas.

Having spent two Christmases in emergency accommodation with her children, Mary describes the experience of being homeless throughout the festive period as “horrible, cold, depressing and damp”.

“I tried to give [the children] everything I could, they were so young, [but] it’s just horrible. It’s lonely, very lonely,” she said.


The Ombudsman for Children, Dr Muldoon said that he has also been pushing for an increase in the number of child support workers, to help children and their families cope with their experiences of homelessness. However, he said: “it didn’t happen” adding that his department “can’t get a clear answer as to why we can’t enhance that support”.

Niamh Lambe, who leads Focus Ireland’s Homelessness Family Action Team (HFAT), says only 80 of the 700 children who avail of the team’s services have access to a child support worker.

“We have to pick the children that are the most traumatised, the most in need, to have a child support worker… [But] they’re all in trauma, you know, the parents are stressed, everyone needs that added piece,” Lambe said.

When asked about increasing the provision of child support workers, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (CEDIY) did not offer a response.

Dr Muldoon, who is a registered clinical psychologist, said: “Everybody needs a shelter. You cannot start anything else in life without your safe, secure shelter. That’s where you can go back and be yourself, where a child can come back and cry and ask who they are, what’s wrong, who are my friends, who am I?

“It’s where they learn things. And if they don’t know where they’re going (to sleep) every night, they don’t know if that house will be there next week or the week after, that’s a really negative impact on that child, you know, it really makes them insecure and anxious for the rest of their life.”

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage says that it has recognised homelessness, “especially child homelessness”, as “one of the greatest challenges facing our country today” and “a key priority for the Government”.

A spokesperson went on to describe the recent increase in homelessness figures as “very concerning” and highlight the efforts being made by the government to combat the issue, more specifically the Housing for All plan, in which the government has allocated €4 billion to the building of social and affordable housing with the aim of eliminating homelessness by 2030.

In his proposed framework, A Better Normal, Dr. Muldoon highlighted a report published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) last year which projected that up to one in five children could be at risk of poverty by the end of the pandemic if the Irish economy fails to make a sufficient recovery.

According to the Department of CEDIY, Minister Roderic O’Gorman has met with Dr Muldoon regarding the A Better Normal framework, which calls for the eradication of child poverty and the elimination of child homelessness to be made a priority.

A spokesperson said that addressing child poverty was a priority, noting that “the Minister has been clear that while some progress has been made, clearly more needs to be done”, adding that “tackling child poverty and effectively implementing the Child Guarantee will require the commitment and active participation of all Government departments to ensure it is collaborative, integrated and, ultimately, impactful for those facing poverty”.

The government’s new national policy for children and young people, to succeed the existing framework, has been delayed until 2022, a decision Minister O’Gorman made “in light of Covid-19”, alongside the progression of the EU Child Guarantee and the development of Ireland’s reporting to the United Nations Children’s Rights Convention.

Advocacy groups such as Social Justice Ireland say this delay is “concerning” and “very regrettable”, adding that the successor framework and the EU Child Guarantee have the capability to be developed and progressed at the same time.

The government is due to publish Ireland’s national action plan as part of the EU Child Guarantee in March of next year.

Trudy Feenane, Sarah McGuinness, Claire Young and David Cotter
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