The Trauma of Child Homelessness
Brian McLoughlin: In March 2017, then housing minister Simon Coveney officially opened the first family hub in Dublin for families experiencing homelessness. He said this was a response to the negative experiences of homeless families being accommodated in commercial hotels. Coveney then confidently stated that the use of commercial hotels to accommodate homeless families would end in July 2017.
In Inner City Helping Homeless, we knew this was yet another empty promise that couldn’t possibly be delivered, but Coveney persisted with the publicity tour. When asked by The Journal if he really thought the goal of no longer using hotels for homeless families was achievable, he stuck to his guns that it was possible and that people were working hard to make it happen.
Fast forward four years, and the use of commercial hotels and B&Bs for homeless families continues as more and more hotels pop up around the city. A recent DRHE report stated that in April 2021 there were 113 families still being accommodated in commercial hotels. Families cramped in to one room with their children, their children’s toys, school books – all at a huge cost to the state. While we were all told to stay at home during Covid-19, these families had to spend day after day sharing one room, putting huge mental health pressure on both the children and their parents. It is well documented that living in emergency accommodation impacts a child’s development, creating physical and mental health issues for children in primary school. Homelessness is creating a trauma for a generation of children, and we will be seeing the fallout of this for years to come.
“There’s nothing nice about how I feel” – Charlie, aged 6
In 2019, the Ombudsman for Children brought out a report called No Place Like Home. For the report, they spoke to children living in emergency accommodation, from small children right up to teenagers. They asked them to explain what life for them was like in their own words, and some of the answers would break a heart made of stone. Children feeling like they were prisoners and were being punished when all they are guilty of is becoming homeless in a country that would rather pay huge money to hotels, B&Bs and family hubs than develop a proper public housing building plan to give these children homes. When asked what they liked about where they live, the answers spoke for themselves:
“I like nothing about living here, I have none of my friends here, I can’t do a sleep over … [it] makes me feel sad. There’s nothing nice about how I feel”. (Charlie, aged 6)
“It’s like a prison …. It’s just horrible” – Rebecca, aged 10
“The rules are very strict. The worst is that you are not allowed to have friends in your room. They just expect you to sit on your own. And not being allowed to be anywhere without your mam, you’re not even allowed to sit in the room for ten minutes by yourself. I know it has safety issues but nothing is going to happen … If we break the rules we will get kicked out. It’s like a prison … it’s just horrible”. (Rebecca, aged 10)
“Some days I didn’t even want to wake up” – Rachel, aged 10
“Some days I didn’t even want to wake up because I didn’t want to face this day … I am tired in school. Some days I would just sit there and not even smile”. (Rachel, aged 10)
When there are ten-year-old children having suicidal thoughts we as a society are failing these children. Many speak of not being allowed to have visitors or sleep-overs – even prisoners are allowed to have visitors. Why are we allowing this?
“Children … were struggling to learn to walk in a cramped room”
In 2018, Temple Street Children’s Hospital experienced a big spike in children being released to ‘No Fixed Abode’ and wrote a report on the impact of homelessness on children. The report stated that homeless children are most likely to get sick from their cramped accommodation. The main reasons children presented to Temple Street were burns (kettles in hotel rooms), scabies from dodgy mattresses, injuries from falls, and respiratory issues. Even more shocking is the fact that homeless children were not developing quickly enough: they were struggling to learn to walk in a cramped room and even the development of their swallow was effected due to the food they were having to eat as their parents had no available cooking facilities. Research shows that homelessness influences every facet of a child’s life, from conception to young adulthood, and that the experience of homelessness inhibits the physical, emotional, cognitive, social and behavioural development of children.
“As of April 2021 there were 167 families, 247 adults and 475 children, who are in emergency accommodation for over two years”
These children are this country’s future generations, and they are being let down over and over again by an incompetent government who lack empathy, compassion and vision. A government which continues to outsource state responsibilities to private developers, vulture funds, commercial hotels, B&Bs and privately-operated hostels. Not only do we have a government who lack empathy and compassion, but they are also economically incompetent. Report after report has highlighted what we are doing to children’s development by keeping them in emergency accommodation. As of April 2021 there were 167 families, 247 adults and 475 children, who are in emergency accommodation for over two years.
And what does family emergency accommodation cost? What is the price the taxpayer pays to put children into these environments that cause so much pain?
Fact: it costs more to accommodate a family in emergency accommodation than in a luxury apartment
The figure for accommodating a family of four in emergency accommodation for a year is a staggering €69,000-€80,000. To put a family in one room, to put a huge strain on the mental and physical health of both the children and their parents. For context, American real estate fund Kennedy Wilson are renting out units in Dublin’s Capitol Dock Development, originally marketed as Dublin’s Most Desirable Address. On-site amenities include a concierge service, gym, fitness studio, business lounge, residents’ lounge, chef’s kitchen and a cinema room. Nearly half of these apartments are vacant today, potential homes sitting empty as families struggle through life in emergency accommodation. And the cost of renting one of these apartments is considerably less than what the taxpayer is paying per family for emergency accommodation. The biggest unit in the Capitol Dock building is a three-bed and the monthly cost is €4,017-€4,410. This is between €20,000 and €30,000 cheaper annually than putting a homeless family into a hotel or B&B for the year. Is this acceptable to people?
We owe it to these children to fight for them, to tell the government that we will no longer accept their hyperbole and broken promises. These children deserve a safe and secure home, something stated in the original constitution, and we have gotten further and further away from that in the last ten years. We all need to work together to get a referendum on the Right to Housing, and as Covid restrictions lift we need to see feet on the street for water-charges-level protests to shame the government into immediate action.
As the Manic Street Preachers song says, If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next.
Brian McLoughlin is Head of Communications for Inner City Helping Homeless and one of the four contributors to Unite’s Take Four group blog, along with Conor McCabe, Ber Grogan and Laura Broxson.