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Teachers speak out: 'Homeless students are being forced to live a double life'

Latest figures show that there are over 3,800 children living in emergency accommodation in Ireland.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/NadyaEugene

FOR MANY HOMELESS children across Ireland, school can oftentimes be one of the only areas of stability in their lives. 

One teacher who spoke to TheJournal.ie said that many homeless children view school as a “safe haven”. 

Latest figures released by the Department of Housing show that during the period recorded in November, there were 6,157 adults and 3,811 children homeless and living in state-funded emergency accommodation in Ireland. 

With the ever-growing number of children in Ireland becoming homeless and entering emergency accommodation, it will come as no surprise that a recent survey carried out by the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) found that 27% of primary schools have students who are homeless. 

Furthermore, 16% of respondents stated that there are children in their school who are living in direct provision.

Many of these children view school as a “safe haven”, but are being “forced to live a double life” because “they don’t really, in most cases, want anyone to know about their situation”, according to IPPN CEO Pairic Clerkin, who was speaking ahead of its annual principals’ conference. 

“The reality is that the school is the second home for the child. It does give the child some stability,” Clerkin told TheJournal.ie. 

“One of the challenges that the children would face is … when they’re put into emergency accommodation that it might be some distance from the actual school,” he said. 

“The parents, in that case, they’re very anxious to keep the child in the school because it’s their one link with stability.”

Many families who are homeless are provided with accommodation in family hubs, hotels or B&Bs. It cannot always be guaranteed that this accommodation will be in the same area as the child’s school. 

Changes in mood

It’s not just the practical elements that are disrupted in a child’s life when they become homeless. It can have a serious emotional impact on a child, too. 

The IPPN survey stated that the top three challenges for children who are either homeless or living in direct provision are anxiety, family issues and neglect. 

The network said that the daily reality of families living in homeless accommodation and direct provision can often result in poor physical and mental wellbeing, low self-esteem, exhaustion and feelings of isolation. 

This can impact children’s school attendance and can result in reduced engagement and participation in school life and learning. 

Clerkin reiterated that there can be pressure on a homeless child because “they won’t want anyone to know their actual situation”.

He added that homeless children can end up with self-esteem issues and feelings of anxiety.

“Everything that the child does from that moment on becomes a complication,” he said, noting that even going on a playdate after school can become a difficulty. 

“If they’re trying to hide the reality of their life, they’re put in situations where they’re trying to cover up,” he said. 

Teachers’ views

Speaking at the launch of a report by the Children’s Rights Alliance in July last year, Maeve McCafferty of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said that teachers are “very acutely aware and concerned about the escalating homelessness crisis”.

Echoing these comments, Clerkin said that teachers have to be “very cognisant” of the importance of protecting a homeless child’s dignity. 

“Our responsibility is to give as much support to the children but also the families in those situations,” Clerkin said. 

“We’re very aware of schools and how they’re trying to support the children and families in their schools. Obviously, they provide emotional support for the children but I know that schools are also trying to provide the very practical support,” he said. 

I think that they’re literally tearing their hair out trying to support these families because they can see the trauma that they’re going through. 

He added that some teachers have taken it upon themselves to try to help homeless families. For example, he said that he knows some teachers who search online for available properties to rent in the school’s area. 

When asked if he thinks primary school teachers get enough training in dealing with homeless children, Clerkin said that there’s “always a want for more training”.

As noted above, latest figures show that there are 3,811 children living in emergency accommodation in Ireland. So, it’s safe to say that the issue of homeless children attending school isn’t going to disappear in the near future. 

With that in mind, Clerkin said that the only longterm solution he can see is to “push forward the investment in terms of providing homes”. 

“In the meantime, all we can do is try to support at local level.” 

Last July’s report published by the Children’s Rights Alliance aimed to capture teachers’ views on how being homeless affects a child’s life in school. 

Similar to Clerkin’s comments, one teacher in the report explained how one child’s relationships in school have been impacted.

“She can become quite withdrawn. She’d never be the one to, you know, she gets along with everybody but she’s not a leader, you know, the way you might see children stand out as being the one who decides what game to play,” he said.

She hasn’t got a lot of confidence.

The teacher added that her participation in class discussions about family events was also affected.

“She doesn’t talk about where, like, her journey to school is so different to everybody else’s. Like she is very tired in school, exhausted and I would be too if I had to travel what she travels,” they said.

Some parents interviewed in the report described how children’s friendship groups had reduced to a small number of close, trusted friends while they were homeless.

The small friend groups were linked to limited opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities and limited ability to meet with their friends after school or on weekends because of their placement in emergency accommodation.

The Department of Education has said in a statement that a range of resources are available to “support schools in dealing with identified additional educational needs, including needs which may arise for children who are experiencing homelessness”. 

“This includes NEPS who work through a problem solving and solution-oriented consultative approach to support schools to meet the needs of individual pupils,” it said. 

DEIS also provides additional supports to schools from disadvantaged communities. “Schools use these additional resources to meet the identified needs of their pupil cohort, including the additional needs that may arise for pupils experiencing homelessness,” the Department said. 

It added: “Schools designated as DEIS can also avail of Home School Community Liaison and School Completion supports provided by Tusla’s Educational Welfare Service to assist with school attendance, retention and progression, which can be areas of particular challenge to pupils experiencing homelessness.” 

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