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'A terminally ill child was forced to live in a car for weeks - this is not right'

June Tinsley writes that some families are living in deplorable conditions around the country and says the time for talk is over.

June Tinsley Head of Advocacy, Barnardos

A COLLEAGUE OF mine in Limerick told me recently, “I was visiting a family when I noticed a rat crawling on the kitchen counter. The family have nowhere else to go and are too scared of a rent increase or eviction to complain to their landlord.”

This is clearly outrageous and yet, sadly, not exceptional.

It is one of many examples of Ireland’s hidden housing crisis; the thousands of children living in severely overcrowded, unsuitable and sometimes unsafe homes. Families unable to move or demand better because they have no other options. Too afraid to call the landlord in case they increase the rent or decide to evict them.

The housing crisis is getting worse

For many families Barnardos works with the housing situation has not improved in the past year – and for too many, it has worsened. The shortage of properties is resulting in chronic overcrowding.

In just one example we have a mother, her three adult daughters, their four children all under the age of four, the boyfriend of the middle daughter plus two teenage brothers, aged 15 and 17 all living under one roof. That’s five adults, two older teenagers and four young children all living in a two-bed terraced house. And we know of many more similar cases.

In addition to the practical problems this introduces, such as disrupted sleep patterns and lack of personal space – for example late nights for children waiting for a quiet corner of a bed or sofa to sleep, who end up exhausted in school – it also puts a severe strain on family relationships.

Domestic violence and family breakdown are increasingly caused by these poor housing conditions and in turn add to the homeless crisis as home life becomes unbearable. And we are seeing very young children in a state of distress because of the instability and uncertainty that surrounds them.

Yet the alternatives can be worse.

A terminally ill child forced to live in a car 

A colleague of mine from Cork worked with one family who became homeless. The family; two parents, a terminally ill child and two other children, hoped they would be immediately housed due to their acute needs.

However they were forced to sleep in their car for three weeks waiting to be put into emergency accommodation – obviously an entirely unsuitable situation.

One mum Barnardos works with has faced first-hand the cruelty of the housing crisis. Donna became homeless in February 2015 and moved into emergency accommodation with her 11 year old son. They had been renting privately but Donna experienced depression which led to falling behind on their rent. They lived in a small town where there was no other affordable accommodation available.

Donna described to me how the housing crisis affected her and her son.

We moved into a women’s hostel in Mullingar. It was scary for both of us and my son found it very difficult as there was only one other boy – who wasn’t the same age. Living in one room with a curfew, a set bed time and little independence strips you back.We had a strong relationship but it started to suffer under the strain. I got support from the staff in the hostel and with their help I learned how to budget and save some money. They also suggested my son link in with Barnardos and this really helped him cope with the situation; but it was still a struggle. I tried constantly to find somewhere else to live but rents were always too high and in any case landlords didn’t want to know once I mentioned Rent Supplement.

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Emergency accommodation 

Through her own hard graft and with support from the services she accessed Donna managed to turn things around. After nine months in the hostel Donna and her son now live in a two-bed apartment under the Rental Accommodation Scheme.

My son is delighted to have his own space. He didn’t leave his new room for a full day when we first moved in. Without support from Barnardos and the hostel staff it could have been a different story for us – I saw in the hostel not everyone comes out the other side. I wish I had known about the services available before becoming homeless.

My fear is the very real danger that we will become used to children and families living in emergency accommodation. That we become pleased if we can reduce the number by a certain fraction or percentage. That is simply not good enough.

We must be outraged and we must force the new government – whoever they are – to act. Build more social housing, increase rent supplement to realistic levels, link rent increases with an inflation index. It is imperative we never find it acceptable for a child to be homeless.

June Tinsley is Head of Advocacy at Barnardos. 

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About the author:

June Tinsley  / Head of Advocacy, Barnardos

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