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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 26 June, 2019
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Homeless and pregnant? 'That changed everything. I stopped drinking. I started to sort myself out.'

What happens when a homeless woman discovers she is pregnant? Read Orla’s story here.

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PATRICK LOOKS LIKE every other happy seven-month-old boy.

What his healthy appearance masks is that his mother spent eight months of her pregnancy living rough on the streets of Dublin.

Orla has been homeless for much of the past two years, sometimes staying in hostels and other emergency accommodation but often sleeping outside.

It was the second time in her life that she had found herself with no shelter.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve been homeless,” she told TheJournal.ie in a recent interview.

“I was homeless when I was 13. I suppose because of my childhood, I would have some trauma. I have depression. I’ve been homeless for seven years of my life – in the mid 90s – and then for the past two years.”

Despite reuniting with her family in the late 1990s, Orla’s life spiralled out of control again in 2012.

“I was living with my children in my hometown and everything was fine. But then my mother got cancer. I cared for her a lot. I was the one who gave her baths and all that.

“When she died, I just kind of felt lost. I started to drink. And then to drink quite heavily. Everything went out of control.”

With her blessing, her children went to live with her sister.

“I knew I wasn’t coping. I didn’t want to drag them all through it,” she explains. But after their departure, her mental health deteriorated from “the heartbreak of losing everything”.

“I couldn’t cope with living in the house because they weren’t there,” she says.

So, it all just got too much. I came up to Dublin and was living on the streets. Just basically drinking and trying to forget.

Soon, however, she discovered she was pregnant. 

“That changed everything. I stopped drinking. I started to sort myself out.”

Orla hasn’t drank since the fourth week of her pregnancy, but she did continue to sleep rough for eight months.

“That was desperate,” she recalls. “I’m not from Dublin so they are not obliged to put me on the housing list here.”

Hiding her pregnancy from the world, she said she “wasn’t really able to stay inside”.

I was too within my own thoughts. I couldn’t do it.

But she was still worried for her safety, full in the knowledge that there are “horrible people who could take advantage of a woman in that situation”.

During her final trimester, it became physically impossible to sleep out and she sought emergency accommodation.

Patrick was born and taken into State care immediately. Orla was allowed to see him three times a week while he was looked after by a foster family.

In the meantime, she had work to do to sort out accommodation and a stable life for her new son.

Short term solutions

Homelessness charity Depaul’s Rendu short-term accommodation offered her a lifeline.

The service comprises 19 self-contained apartments for women and children. It holds about seven of those properties for pregnant women.

Most of Rendu’s service users have a range of complex issues, including substance abuse, addiction or mental health issues.

“They are at a point where assessments have been made by social workers that it is reasonably safe for the child to be with their mother,” explains group manager Shane Bradley.

“Part of our remit is to give a level of stability to cement whatever systems and safety plans have been put in place.”

Orla is thankful for the help she received.

“I did all my therapy and I got my head together. But I could not have done that if I had nowhere to stay. The people here [in Depaul and Rendu] gave me a place. And then gave Patrick a home.

“I haven’t drank since finding out I was pregnant, which was a month into it. The second I knew, it stopped,” she says again, gazing at her son.

“And you’d know it, looking at him. He’s a perfect little boy. He’s so healthy. He’s the best boy in the world,” she adds, beaming.

Moving on?

Patrick was returned to his mother from State care two months ago. She describes having “the best feeling in the world” that day.

“All the real hardship was over. You can’t understand the pain.”

Women are told that a maximum stay at Rendu is six months, but the reality is that they need longer to ensure they can move onto longer-term accommodation.

“There are just so few move-on options,” says Bradley.

Orla is hoping to move back down to her Midlands hometown and reunite with her other children. But first, two local authorities must work together to ensure she is on a priority needs waiting list.

“It could take two years before I’m housed and that’s a big problem,” she admits. “It is a real fear that they would take him again because I have nowhere to live. Imagine if I lost him again? I really couldn’t cope with that.”

Like so many others working in the sector, Bradley bemoans the dependence on the private rented sector.

“Until that bigger picture is sorted, I think we will be in this situation for a while,” he says of allowing the women stay longer than six months.

“It is difficult but we have to do it. If we weren’t here, these people would be worse off. We provide safety and shelter. And we provide an environment that if there is co-operation from the mother, families will stay together.”

That co-operation – and the motivation – of the mother is key to moving them into independent living spaces.

“The attitude, approach and motivation of the service users is very critical. Anybody who has wanted to move, it happens. Sometimes, it takes a little longer but they will do it.”

There have been a number of “success” stories recently, Bradley confirms.

“We had one lady who came to one of Depaul’s services two years ago, still using intravenous drugs of various types. She eventually transferred here after showing signs of stability and motivation.

In the meantime, she had got pregnant. We got her here and worked with her, along with other supports. This wasn’t her first child, but somehow, she realised that she needed to get her act together or she’d lose custody of this child too.

“She really worked and had the child while she was here. Safety plans were put in place and she kept to them. DCC got her long-term accommodation and she moved in last July. She’s been doing well ever since. That’s our goal with everyone.”

In 2013, Rendu apartments saw eight children born. This year, they have already had four newborns through the service.

For each, they have a birth plan with details such as where the baby bag will be kept and if the women have enough towels.

“We would go into that level of detail,” says Bradley. “We work in conjunction with the midwife in the Rotunda and its supports to manage the pregnancy.”

The HSE wordk with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, Department of Social Protection and the HSE National Homeless Advisory Governance Group in cases where homeless women are pregnant. It works in much the same way as any discharge of a homeless person back into the community. According to national policy, no patient should be discharged into homelessness.

Although the HSE is responsible for the “in-house care and the health needs of homeless people”, it is the remit of the Department of the Environment to provide housing.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, a HSE spokesperson said:

“People who present as homeless for maternity services are offered the same range of services as the rest of the population. In line with national policy no patient will be discharged into homelessness so referrals to the Local Authorities re housing needs are in place.”

With the number of homeless people increasing and only seven places in the Depauls service, there is a “gap in the market” for services for pregnant women, according to Bradley.

“I think there will always be a need for a service like ours (short-term, emergency accommodation for those with complex needs such as addiction) when you have these women moving out of chaos and into stability. We are there to help them and help the child, because they are best off with their parents. There will always be a need for a service like this.”

*Names and place names have been changed to protect the identities of the children involved

Top image: Andrew Bennett via Flickr/Creative Commons

Catch up with all the rest of our Homeless Ireland series here>

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