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File photo of a child decorating a Christmas tree. Shutterstock/Gajus

Parents living in emergency accommodation 'anxious about giving children a decent Christmas'

Over 3,000 children are currently homeless in Ireland.

FOCUS IRELAND HAS said that many parents living in emergency accommodation feel anxious that they will not be able to give their children the best Christmas they can because of their circumstances. 

The charity, which provides services for homeless people across the country, will be supporting people who are living in emergency accommodation over the Christmas period. 

Director of advocacy at Focus Ireland Mike Allen told The Journal that the charity is currently distributing things such as toys and sweets to families and children that have been donated by the public. 

“A lot of very generous people who want to give to families or children who are homeless but don’t know how to do that directly are donating to us, both individuals and corporates, and we do a huge amount of distribution of those things in the run up to Christmas so that families have something to celebrate Christmas with,” he said.

“Our family homeless action team in Dublin will be working with over 300 families who are in emergency accommodation of various sorts over Christmas. They will be working with those families to try and adjust and to try and arrange some events and activities to allow those children and families to have some sort of reasonable Christmas in the difficult circumstances that they’re in.”

Allen said that many families in emergency accommodation often feel anxious that they are not providing the best Christmas that they can for their children due to their circumstances. 

“There’s a huge concern of being able to give their children a decent Christmas and there’s the anxiety that we have every year, the children being worried about whether – given that they’re not in a thing that would be recognised as a home – will Santa be able to come, and those sorts of childish anxieties that are there which we work with them to talk about,” he said.

“There’s various books and children’s stories that have been written over the, sadly, too many years that we’ve been dealing with this crisis, to help explain to children that Christmas is going to come to them.

“For the parents, mostly there’s that anxiety about not wanting to let their children down. I’ve always felt that to be one of the most moving parts of the emotional experience that parents talk about is this concern that they have to be the best parents they can and due to circumstances which are very often entirely outside their control, but certainly not fully under their control, they’re finding that they’re not able to fulfil the role of parents that they wish to, and that causes itself a lot of anxiety and trauma.”

Record homelessness

There is currently a record number of people in emergency accommodation across the country. According to figures released by the Department of Housing last month, there were 7,917 adults and 3,480 children homeless in Ireland in November.

The number of people staying in emergency accommodation has increased every single since June 2021, when the figure stood at 8,014.

Allen said it was particularly hard seeing the figures so high because the number of homeless children had “substantially declined during the Covid period”.

“That was partly because there were fewer families becoming homeless and more families moving out of homelessness,” he said.

“It fell dramatically and there was a huge sense that we were making progress. So seeing the figures go up again to the current level isn’t just a bad thing in itself. You just feel all the progress we made over that period of time slipping away so quickly.

I don’t think that was inevitable. I think that we could have we could have done things which would have made sure that the figures didn’t rise so quickly and so many families experienced homelessness.

In a statement to The Journal, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien is “absolutely aware that families living in emergency accommodation, at any time, let alone at Christmas, is not what we want”.

“The Minister, on behalf of Government, has signed the Lisbon Declaration on ending homelessness. It commits Ireland to putting in place the necessary measures to bring an end to homelessness by 2030. Every action we take in this regard is to meet this objective,” the spokesperson said.

Through the Housing for All plan, the Government has committed to eradicating homelessness by 2030. However, opposition politicians have questioned whether this target will be met. 

The spokesperson said that the increase in homelessness seen in recent months is “a serious concern for Government” and is “being actively addressed”. 

They added that Budget 2023 provides funding of over €215 million for the delivery of homeless services, an increase of 10% on last year.

“This increased funding will ensure local authorities can provide homeless prevention measures, emergency accommodation and support households to successfully exit homelessness. There is also enhanced funding for Housing First towards delivering over 1,300 new Housing First tenancies to 2026.”

The spokesperson also noted the recent eviction ban implemented by the Government this winter. “While this emergency measure is necessary and provides assistance in the short-term, the long-term answer to our accommodation challenges remains an increased and sustainable supply of new housing,” they added. 

Winter eviction ban a ‘panic measure’

Under the bill, all notices to quit that are issued over the period of the emergency ban will be deferred until at least the end of March 2023.

Allen welcomed the winter eviction ban, but described it as a “panic measure at the last minute”. 

“Everybody could see this was coming. Why we had to wait to introduce a panic eviction ban rather than introduce more effective and moderated measures, I still don’t really know,” he said.

We need to be able to deal with the housing problem we have without it being a constant knife-edge crisis.

Asked if he feels hopeful that there will not be as many families in emergency accommodation next Christmas, Allen said: “I can’t say I would be hopeful.

“It is possible to do it and we will work to do whatever we can to put pressure on and to be part of the solution,” he said.

“I absolutely believe that we could bring in measures during the year which would substantially reduce family homelessness by next Christmas. I absolutely believe that. Do I believe the government would do that? I’m just in a position where I hope they’ll do that and Focus Ireland are going to work to try and achieve what we know is achievable.”

He said that more housing needs to be built, but added that it also matters how housing that becomes available is distributed. 

“We are now delivering more social housing than we were in previous years, so [the Government] is talking about maybe 8,000 new social houses this year. But probably about the same number of homeless families will move out of homelessness into social housing and did when we were only delivering about 1,000 social houses,” Allen continued.

“So it really matters how we distribute the houses that become available. We really need to, in same way as we prioritised vulnerable people doing Covid for vaccines and so on, we really need to start prioritising vulnerable families and vulnerable people when housing becomes available. They shouldn’t always be at the back of the queue.

“There’s a myth in Ireland that homeless families and so on are at the front of the queue and they’re not. They’re constantly at the back of the queue. We could have much bigger impact on the level of homelessness with the same level of house building as we currently have, if we started to take that seriously.”

Rough sleepers

The figures released by the Department every month do not include homeless people with no form of accommodation who might be sleeping on the streets, or asylum seekers or refugees from Ukraine.

Louisa Santoro, CEO of Mendicity, a drop-in centre that provides support for people experiencing homelessness, told The Journal that the fact that rough sleepers are not accounted for in those monthly figures is “crazy”.

“It’s like counting people and not counting people under 5′ 5″. It always amazes me because I think when you think about homelessness, generally we think about somebody sleeping rough. They’re the public face of homelessness, and yet they’re not counted in the figures.”

Mendicity provides hot meals, washing facilities and clean clothes to people experiencing homelessness, as well as WiFi and phone charging facilities. The day centre also helps with booking rough sleepers into hostels in the capital.

Santoro said that this can sometimes be difficult to do. “It’s a phone-based system where you call and book, so obviously then somebody needs access to a phone to do that,” she said.

“It depends on whether they’ve used the service before, whether they haven’t had an assessment done, that might slow things down a little. We’re hoping that it won’t slow things down for Christmas. We want to make sure that anybody who needs a bed gets one.”

She said the accommodation situation in the country at the moment is “chaotic”. 

“The clientele that we would have would either be sleeping rough, or they would be sleeping in a hostel that is run for profit, basically. Those environments can be really chaotic. This is not an easy place to be.

“We know that the impact of chaos on how you’re able to cope the following day can be pretty damning. We’ve got people sharing rooms. They might be sharing rooms with three to five other people. We’ve got guys in their 50s in bunk beds, people that would be in sharing rooms with a variety of other people.

This is why in some cases, while sleeping rough does not seem like a choice to you or me, if that’s the only autonomy you can exercise, that’s what some people choose to do.

Mendicity will be open on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Monday 2 January, which is a bank holiday.

“My experience over the last couple of years has been that on Christmas Day, there is this huge outpouring of sympathy for people who are homeless. It’s the other 364 days as well,” Santoro said.

“We’ve opened New Year’s Day for the last couple years and there’s nothing open on New Year’s Day. It’s really grim. I think those are days that can be a little dark.”

The Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) – on behalf of the four Dublin local authorities, Dublin City Council, Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council – is the lead agency with responsibility for responding to homelessness across the capital.

The DRHE works with several organisations, including the Peter McVerry Trust and Dublin Simon Community, to run hostels and other accommodation facilities for homeless people in the Dublin region.

In a statement to The Journal, a spokesperson for the DRHE said: “Throughout the Christmas period, the DRHE will continue to provide emergency accommodation and support services to anyone in need of our services.

“All residential accommodation for families and singles is operated on a rolling continuous 24 hour basis, with meals and shower facilities provided on site,” the spokesperson said. 

They also said that the free homeless helpline 1800 707 707 will be operational from 10am to 10pm almost every day throughout the Christmas period for those who need access to emergency accommodation in the Dublin Region.

The spokesperson added that reduced operating hours will apply on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day – namely 1pm to 10pm. The Dublin Street Outreach Service can be contacted on 01 872 0185 every day from 7am to 1am.

The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (SVP) is also continuing to meet all of the requests for assistance it has received coming up to Christmas, including from those living in emergency accommodation. 

A spokesperson for the charity told The Journal: “The Society volunteers are working to ensure that all those who sought its help, whether with food, energy or helping Santa, are facilitated in advance of Christmas Day.”

Families with children account for about 70% of requests to SVP, which also works in conjunction with other organisations including the Irish Red Cross and Focus Ireland “to ensure a good Christmas is available to as many people as possible,” the spokesperson said.

They added that 2022 has been a record year for calls to the charity and that they are estimated to exceed 200,000 for the year.

RDS Christmas dinner

The annual Christmas Day Dinner for the homeless in the RDS is back this year after two years of Covid restrictions.

The event, organised by the Knights of St Columbanus, will see volunteers provide a three-course meal of soup, Christmas dinner and Christmas pudding for up to 550 poor and homeless people in Dublin.

Volunteers will provide a free coach shuttle service to and from the RDS every 20 minutes from 9.30am to 11.30am on Christmas Day. It will pick up from Dawson Street opposite the Mansion House, the Four Courts buildings on Inn’s Quay, and under Clery’s Clock on O’Connell Street.

Volunteers will also provide over 4,000 takeaway meals and goody bags containing food, toiletries, soft drinks and household products for the following days, which will be delivered to those in need in their own homes.

This will be done with the assistance of St Vincent de Paul, Simon, Alone, Age Action, Dublin City and other groups who provide transport.

Earlier this week, around 3,000 people queued up outside the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin to receive vouchers to buy food that will get them through the Christmas period. 

Those gathered were men and women of all ages, from very elderly people to mothers with prams and young children.

Founded by Brother Kevin Crowley, who retired in August, and run by the Capuchin Friars, the centre has been operating in the north inner city for over 50 years.

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