life in limbo

Hidden Homelessness: This family is living in a converted workshed in a Dublin back garden

Keith and Sinead bought a house at the height of the boom. Nine years later, they’re ‘in limbo’ in the Dublin suburbs.
That back wall was built out of pallets I got out of a friend’s factory you know… There wasn’t a lot of money to do this.

HE’S WORKED IN construction for more than 20 years – and Keith is clearly proud of his handy-work as he shows around the home he’s built for his family in the back garden of his parents’ house in south-west Dublin.

It’s warm, cosy and ingeniously designed – there’s even a tiny attic, and shelving to store everything from winter clothes to nappies and toys.

The 43-year-old isn’t sure the converted workshed quite qualifies as a home, though – at least, not a home suitable for a large family.

“I know we’re not exactly homeless,” he says, “but in my eyes – we had a home at one time…”.

20170914_195854 The main living space encompasses a sitting area, a compact kitchen space and the couple's bedroom. Daragh Brophy / Daragh Brophy / /

Keith, his wife Sinead (we’ve changed the names at their request) and their seven children are living between the converted shed and the “big house” as they call it.

The four boys, the youngest kids, sleep out the back. The older ones are in the house, with Keith’s parents.

It’s by no means an ideal state-of-affairs – but their situation underscores an aspect of the housing and homelessness crisis you’ll only hear about intermittently in the headlines.

‘Hidden homelessness’ is a growing problem, according to charities working in the area. CSO figures based on last year’s Census detailed a rise in overcrowding in Irish households: almost 10% of the population is now in homes with more people than rooms. Families in such situations “are often missing from the debate,” according to children’s charity Barnardos.

Keith had emailed in response to a story about the most recent homelessness figures. The latest official figures, which detail the number of people registered as homeless with their local council, recently topped 8,000.

“What I’d like to know is where are the numbers for those who don’t register on the homeless list – sleeping in sheds, vans, caravans, cars, couches or whatever goes?” he’d written.

In person, he’s keen to get his own family’s story across – to show how the figures depict only a part of the crisis.

Property boom 

In some ways, it’s a familiar tale. Seeking to buy, the couple found themselves priced out of the market in Dublin in the mid-2000s – eventually settling on a home big enough for their growing family in Co Offaly.

Says Keith: “There was a house for sale down the road. I think at the time it was €340,000.”

The most I could afford at the time was about €260,000, so I put 26 grand to that myself and bought that house for €287,000.

It was a long commute to Dublin, where Keith – a door and window fitter – spent most of his working time. He didn’t mind, he says: the kids were settling in, and he was proud to have secured their home and mortgage.

The timing couldn’t have been worse though. They closed on the house in May 2008. The following January, his hours were cut to three days a week. By August 2009 Keith was out of a job.

Within months, their home was a risk. They fell behind in bills – struggling to keep the house heated and food in the fridge.

Says Sinead: “The mortgage was €1,340 a month.”

I mean sure, our kids were struggling going to school – I wouldn’t even be able to make them a proper lunch.

They tried to stick it out – but after the severely cold winter of 2010/2011 had had enough.

“We could have stayed on in that house for an extra two years,” Sinead says. “But we didn’t because we didn’t want to be staying in a house that we couldn’t afford.”

Making plans for what they hoped would be a temporary arrangement in Dublin, Keith decided to take his workshed apart and load it onto the back of a truck

Says Sinead: “He said ‘I’m going to take that down with one of the lads tomorrow and we’re going to stay in me ma’s back garden for a while and hopefully things… you know.

I just went for it – because he was in a depression mode as well down there with everything that was going on.
It was the best thing that we’ve done to be honest.

Letting out the house didn’t work for them – the Offaly location wasn’t a desirable one for tenants, and the mortgage debt was still mounting up. After seeking financial advice, the couple decided to surrender the house back to the bank.

20170914_200008 Basic meals can be prepared in the kitchen area, just inside the front porch - but the kids' main evening meals are cooked and served in the main house. Daragh Brophy / Daragh Brophy / /

Years later, they’re still in debt for the Offaly home. As a result, getting a deposit together for a house is out of the question.

As for their other options? Sinead says they’re on the housing list for South Dublin County Council, but face a wait of around nine years. Renting wouldn’t make much sense either; it’s hard to find an affordable home for such a large family, and monthly rates have been surging in the last few years. Rents in the capital are now 8% above their previous peak in 2007.


The work, for Keith, “came back almost immediately” after they moved back to Dublin.

Not having a job had driven him to despair in the intervening years: “I’m a busy fella, you know? When I’m not working… I’m always working for someone, it’s mad – but I like to be like that.”

On days off, he built an extension onto the original workshed. There’s also a compact but functional bathroom and shower, and a microwave and grill for the kids’ breakfasts and lunches. Sinead uses the cooker in the main house for evening meals.

The overcrowding can get to everyone, at times. The couple’s eldest daughter, who’s 20, has a baby herself now – and two of Keith siblings live in the end-of-terrace house too. On some nights there are 15 people bedding down, between the house and backyard dwelling.

In recent years, Keith has offered to take over fire-damaged or boarded-up Council housing and do the renovation work himself – but was told that’s not how the system works.

20170914_200107 Attic and storage space above the main bedroom/living space area. Most of the boys sleep in an extension to the main structure. Daragh Brophy / Daragh Brophy / /

Francis Doherty of the Peter McVerry Trust says the charity is hearing more and more cases like that of Keith and Sinead – of families moving back in with an older generation, as a last resort.

By the time people make the call to the Trust, however, their situation has often become even more precarious.

On a more or less daily basis we find that we’re being contacted by people saying that they’ve been staying with friends and family, that they’ve been couch-surfing, that they’ve sort of worn out their welcome with various friends and family over the last few months and that they’re on the verge of presenting as homeless, officially homeless, and looking for help.

There’s a real problem with the way we measure homelessness in Ireland too, Doherty says.

“Basically for the local authority to accept you, you have to walk out of the family home that you might be staying in temporarily and present yourself.

“It would make much more sense to recognise people as homeless in these types of scenarios and situations where they don’t have adequate stable accommodation and the situation is extremely precarious.

We should be doing more to aid those families and individuals – the system shouldn’t be set up in such a way where people actually have to go into a hostel or a hotel in order to be deemed homeless.

‘We’re not in the worst situation’

Back in the south Dublin suburbs, Keith says he knows of three other families within the estate in a similar situation to themselves. Just up the road, there’s even another family living in a parents’ back garden.

The couple are resigned to the possibility that they’ll be in the same situation for years to come – but say they’re still searching for ways to get the whole family back under one roof.

Says Sinead:

We’re not in the worst situation. I’d gladly go into a hotel or a hostel or whatever if that made me get a house quicker – but I couldn’t do that to my kids, I couldn’t drag them through that.
I count myself lucky. I get into bed at night and say at least we’ve a roof over our head and the kids have food in their bellies, you know? That’s what I’m happy about.

Read: President Higgins says homeless people are deprived of freedom and a sense of belonging >

Read: The number of homeless families in Ireland has increased by almost 300 in the past year >

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