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Dublin: 4 °C Friday 13 December, 2019
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Opinion: The Irish state is a very bad parent - when its children turn 18 they often end up on the streets

Sometimes we talk about people ending up as statistics. But there are no statistics compiled for how many children raised in state care become homeless, writes Shane Dunphy.

Shane Dunphy

THE FIRST TIME I met James* it was at the beginning of the Christmas season, and he was being thrown out of a pub for causing a disturbance.

He had arrived early that evening and had already consumed more than was good for him as the first of the work parties were coming in for their seasonal festivities. In his early twenties, he was dressed in a garishly coloured designer tracksuit, and he tried to attach himself to various groups about the bar until someone complained.

As several of the bar-staff escorted him out, the landlord confided in me: “I feel bad chucking him out,” he said. “I was chatting to the lad earlier, and he told me he’s just got out of a care home.”

Later, as my group was leaving, we spied James coming out of a nearby chip shop, still very unsteady. “He told me he was staying in the homeless shelter tonight,” a friend of mine said. “He won’t be now – they lock their doors at 10.30pm.”

We left him weaving his way through the night, probably looking for somewhere out of the elements to sleep. A week passed before I thought of him again.

Aftercare

Section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 places a duty on Tusla to support young people like James by putting together an aftercare plan in advance of their leaving the care system – this involves a review of their needs and the challenges they are likely to face.

In December 2017 (the latest available figures) 2,307 young people were registered as being in receipt of aftercare services with Tusla, meaning they had recently left some form of State care.

It is worth noting though that the true figure for those who recently left State care is even higher because while best practice is that all young people should have an aftercare plan this doesn’t always happen.

Children in education and training are prioritised, and that sometimes means that the most vulnerable young people miss out. The provision of aftercare also differs from region to region.

In this case though James did have an aftercare plan. That would have aimed to address issues like what kind of support network he has. Does he have a place to live? How stable is he financially? And does he have someone he can turn to if he finds himself in crisis?

The fact that James was staying in a homeless shelter and spending what little money he had in the pub suggests the plan put in place for him wasn’t working.

James’ story

The following Sunday I was doing some Christmas shopping with my daughter. The main street was a throng of moving people, all intent on getting the last few bargains before the shops closed. I was heading into my local bookstore when I spotted a figure huddled in the doorway, a cardboard takeout cup containing a few coins clutched in its hand.
It was James.

I bought two cups of tea and a sandwich in a nearby café and made my way back to him. He accepted the food gladly, and we chatted while he ate. I asked him if he had anywhere to stay that night. He informed me that he had gotten into a row in the homeless shelter: someone had stolen an iPhone he had just bought, and he had become aggressive.

“I’m not goin’ back there,” he said. “I’d rather take me chances on the street.”

James told me that his aftercare plan had involved him moving in with his Dad. He had become a ward of the state when his father was sentenced to a lengthy prison term. But his Dad had recently been released on parole.

“I went home, but it didn’t work out,” James said. “Me Ma died just before he went inside. He’s not out of jail six months and he’s already seeing a woman,” he said. 

“He brought her home and I went mad. It’s not right. I’m sleeping right next door to the pair of them, and they doin’ God knows what.”

I put it to him that perhaps he needed to have a conversation with his father about how he felt, that maybe they could draw up some boundaries. Surely anything was better than sleeping rough at this time of year.

I offered James my mobile so he could call his Dad. He took the phone for a moment before handing it back, unused. “I ain’t ready yet,” he told me. “We’re both fiery, me and him – he’ll need time to cool off. Maybe tomorrow.”

I said I’d hold him to that, and would look for him the following day. But when I did, he was nowhere to be found.

The staff at the homeless shelter told me they hadn’t heard from him. It looked like James had moved on.

Not even a statistic

According to figures published this year by Focus Ireland, the number of young people aged between 18 and 24 years experiencing homelessness has increased by 85% in the past three years, and people who grew up within the care system form one of the largest cohorts. 

Nearly 1,000 young people are now officially counted as homeless. However the true figure is considerably higher than that, as young people are far more likely than any other group to experience ‘hidden homelessness’ – that is they are sofa surfing, squatting or perhaps living rough in secluded locations.

I hope James didn’t end up in the hidden homeless cohort, perhaps living in a tent somewhere. I hope he called his Dad. It would be nice to think that James’s story has a happy ending.

Sadly for most young people raised in State care who end up homeless it’s unlikely there will be a happy ending.

Sometimes we talk about people ending up as statistics, but in this case, the Government doesn’t even collate the statistics. 
They can’t tell us how many James’s there are in Ireland – young people raised in State care who have ended up homeless. 

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is Head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education.

*All names have been changed to protect anonymity

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