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'It’s like a prison, it’s just horrible': Family hubs through the eyes of homeless children

The Ombudsman for Children’s Office spoke with 80 children living in family hubs around the country.

Noah, aged 10
Noah, aged 10

PRIVACY, NOT BEING able to have any visitors, and feelings of shame and embarrassment, are among some of the complaints raised by homeless children living in family hubs, according to a new report.  

The Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) will later today launch its report, No Place Like Home, detailing the views of 80 children living in family hubs in Dublin, Cork and Limerick.

Latest homeless emergency accommodation figures show that there are now 3,784 homeless children living in emergency accommodation in the State.

During a consultation process, the OCO asked children and parents – representing children under five – living in the family hubs what they liked, what they found challenging and what they would change about the hubs.

While most children did not directly speak about their mental health during the consultation, they did express feelings of sadness, confusion and anger. 

“Some days I didn’t even want to wake up because I didn’t want to face this day… I am tired in school. Some days I would just sit there and not even smile,” Rachel (10) said. 

For some parents who were interviewed said the experience of living in a family hub was completely negative. One mother told the OCO that the only good aspect of living in the family hub is that her daughter might not remember the experience.

“It is not ideal for kids, but at least she is young, she’s still only a baby and won’t remember it,” Mother of Ciara, aged 2, said. 

The OCO report states that the majority of families who live in family hubs have one room with an en-suite bathroom, while bigger families have two such rooms.

Many parents raised concerns about how much space their children had to learn to crawl and walk and reported that their children felt confined.

We are all in one room it has a double bed and two cots. It is hard to keep the boys from playing in the bathroom. Taj opened a packet of soap pods and got a chemical burn. (Mother of Taj, aged 2 and Kareem, aged 1)

PastedImage-51287 Several children described the distress and upset that they felt when they could not take their pets with them to the Hub and talked about how much they missed them. Source: OCO

Due to the fact that so many people are living in close quarters, many children have been sick frequently.

According to the OCO, parents in some hubs complained that staff had not informed them of outbreaks of infections, while only a few hubs clearly displayed such notices. 

I was informed there was three other cases in the hotel/hub, and I said to them, ‘You didn’t tell anybody. There was no notice put up in the lift to let people know anything was going on…’ I informed them the Saturday saying ‘I think she’s hand, foot and mouth’. I informed them on the Sunday I came back [from hospital]. Again, on the Monday I informed another – another staff – member of staff. The notice wasn’t put up until the Wednesday. (Mother of Megan, aged 17 months)

A number of the children aged 5 to 12 expressed their overall dislike of the Hub and their desire to leave as soon as possible, with many attempting to run away. 

Hannah (8) told the OCO that the hub was “like a children’s jail”. She told them she was extremely worried that her younger brother Niall (5), who had tried to run away from the Hub on several occasions would try do so again.

The five-year-old had even threatened to throw himself out of a bedroom window, the report notes.

PastedImage-51131 Rachel, aged 10 Source: OCO

Children were also frustrated with the lack of space for them to play or do their homework. Some children described how they adapted to a lack of space and privacy that arises from their entire family living in one room.

“Well, sometimes I have to read in the toilet if my sister wants to go to sleep. I love reading, my favourite book is Harry Potter,” Lena (9) said. 

Many reported that excessive noise in the hub is often linked with tensions within and between families living in there.

“The children told us that they had witnessed arguments and, on occasion, physical fights between adults,” the report states. 

Chloe (7) told the OCO that one of her biggest sources of unhappiness in the hub was noise caused by fighting. She explained that she and her mum tried to make it into a game, trying to guess what the “screaming” might be about. 

The noise keeps me awake, I feel tired when I go to school. I feel like my eyes feel like they are about to go to sleep.

PastedImage-56081 Chloe, aged 7 Source: OCO

While there are no external visitors allowed in any of the hubs, most of them involved in the consultation did not allow children who lived in their hub to visit each other’s rooms.

“Once I asked someone who lives here to my room, my Mum agreed with it, her Mum agreed, she agreed and then someone knocked on the door and said ‘she can’t go there’. I felt sad ‘cos even if you are best friends you can only meet them in the meeting room,” Lena (9).

In response to incidents of children fighting with each other, some hubs made the decision to restrict children from playing in the hallways outside of their rooms and re-enforced the policy that children could not be unsupervised. Children told the OCO that as a result, their parents had stopped allowing them to play with other children in the hub. 

The rules are very strict. The worst is that you are not allowed to have friends in your room. They just expect you to sit on your own. And not being allowed to be anywhere without your mam, you’re not even allowed to sit in the room for 10 minutes by yourself. I know it has safety issues but nothing is going to happen… If we break the rules we will get kicked out. It’s like a prison… it’s just horrible. (Rebecca, 10)

‘It’s better than a hotel or street’

For children aged 5 to 12 years, the only good thing they identified about living in the family hub was making friends. In hubs where there was shared space, the OCO noted that children seemed to benefit from interacting with each other and making friends.

However, several young children involved in the consultation could not identify anything positive about the hubs. In a number of cases, when asked what was good about living in the hub, children answered with “nothing”.

PastedImage-91023 Noah, aged 10 Source: OCO

The OCO said that in some cases, in an attempt to identify positives children uncovered further negative feelings. For example, one child told them about how good the security was in the hub, but how this also put restrictions on her.

Em, there is really top-notch security here, sometimes the doors have a lock on them… and it makes me feel trapped. (Lena, aged 9)

Depending on where the children had lived previously, the OCO found that their views varied. For those who lived had been living in overcrowded housing with extended family, the hub was viewed as comparatively better in some ways, with some having their own bed for the first time.

This place is good, I like it here. There are bad things about here as well. I do have a bed to sleep in at night time, some people don’t. (Anna, aged 16)

PastedImage-90802 Rachel, aged 10 Source: OCO

For parents who took part on behalf of the children under five, the positive aspects of the family hubs that they identified were the safety and stability there.

The mother of Myles, aged 13 months, said that the hub “provides a safety net with security here all the time… having a roof over our heads and an opportunity to have somewhere to call home for the time being and it provides a bit of stability”.

Another mother summarised the positive aspects of the family hub for her youngest son as follows:

It’s better than a hotel or street or another person’s house. The hub is clean, we are not hungry or dirty. (Mother of Ali, aged 17 months)

Two of the eight hubs visited by OCO had a child-support worker on site. A number of parents also mentioned other positive aspects of the family hubs including cleanliness and opportunities for young children to socialise and interact with other children.

The Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon said that based on the responses to the No Place Like Home report he believes the time has come to progress the conversation on including an express right to housing in the Constitution.

“We can no longer allow our children to live with the overwhelming feelings of shame, guilt and anger because they are homeless, through no fault of their own,” Muldoon said. 

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Adam Daly

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