We need to adjust our understanding of what it means today to be homeless

Opinion: Family homelessness is mostly a result of poor economic circumstances

Wed, Dec 18, 2013, 10:27

It is 30 years since I carried out my first research project on homelessness in Dublin. After three decades it is hard to accept the reality that the situation is now worse.

When I started, people had a narrow view of homelessness: the perception was of a single older man, probably with an alcohol problem or mental health issues, living rough and visible on the streets.

Certainly the men struggling with a life on the streets existed then and they exist today. But it is not the typical experience of homelessness. As well as those sleeping rough, we have all kinds of people, including horrifying numbers of children, without a safe and secure place to call home in Dublin, and it is getting worse every day.

Focus Ireland’s latest figures show that 173 families lost the roof over their heads in Dublin in the first nine months of this year, double the number last year. These newly homeless families include 191 children. Broken down another way: five children are becoming homeless in Dublin every week. This is unacceptable.

Those of us on the front line are working hard to support those who have lost or are at risk of losing their home. We are increasingly concentrating on prevention as there has been a 43 per cent rise in the number of people our prevention services supported around the country since 2012.

Despite our efforts, the grim reality is the situation continues to deteriorate rapidly, and we all know why. There are all kinds of reasons why people become homeless, but severe economic pressure is the most obvious.

I am sure we all know people who have been badly affected by the recession: they have lost their jobs, their businesses, their pensions, their incomes, their homes.

Almost inevitable

Now imagine those problems multiplied through disadvantage, poor educational attainment, illness, debt, domestic upheaval and family breakdown

– and you can see that homelessness is almost inevitable for those at the bottom of the social pile.

The figures tell their own shocking story, but what is really distressing is the terrible stories I hear from people with young children who come into Focus Ireland every day looking for someone to listen to them, to tell them they matter, and to help them find, make and keep a home.

You won’t see these families camped out on the street. They are usually “housed” in emergency accommodation such as a “bed and breakfast”, so they do have a physical roof over their heads. So that’s all right, then?

No, it’s not. A B&B is fine for a few nights if you are on holiday, but it is no way for a family to live for months, even years, on end. Imagine not being able to cook a meal for your children, maybe not even being able to heat a bottle for a baby. Imagine having to leave your accommodation in the morning and spend the day trudging around with your children until you can get back in at nightfall. Imagine getting your children out to school in the morning and not having anywhere for them to do their homework when the school day is over. How can you bring children up properly in such an unstable situation?

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