‘Panicking for breath’: How a cold, damp and overcrowded home affects one mother and her children

Cork-based Sarah Williams says she’s on medication for depression due to stress ‘about the way we’re living’

Sarah Williams, a pregnant mother of three girls, sleeps in the downstairs livingroom with her partner, Peter McCarthy, most nights. Black mould in their bedroom makes her cough so much she wakes “panicking for breath”. The heating system does not work, she says. There is no hot running water, though they have an electric shower.

The damaging impact on mothers’ mental health of living in a home that is cold, damp and overcrowded was outlined in a landmark study from Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) today.

Titled Housing, Health and Happiness: How Inadequate Housing Shapes Child and Parental Wellbeing, the study notes longer time spent in “inadequate housing” leads to “more negative wellbeing outcomes”.

Sarah is on medication for depression due to stress “about the way we’re living” and making ends meet. Heating the home is “a constant struggle”, she says.

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“I had to buy electric heaters for the rooms and we boil kettles for the dishes. We easy spend €80-€100 a week or more in the winter in the prepay meter. We can’t afford to light the fire – fuel is that expensive.”

She and her daughters, aged 14, 10 and five, have lived in the three-bedroom house in Cobh, Co Cork, for seven years. They are tenants under the Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS), whereby the landlord enters into a contract with the council to provide the dwelling for a fixed number of years.

RAS dwellings must meet minimum standards and may be inspected by a council environmental health officer as part of the letting arrangement.

“We were in Midleton but the landlord was selling. I was in college at the time, so I was desperate to find somewhere. It was this or homelessness. When we moved in, it was bog-standard but freshly painted and clean.” She pays €50.50 a week rent to the council, though this will increase as Mr McCarthy is added as a joint-tenant on the lease. The council pays the landlord the market rent.

“It was the first winter when I first noticed mould on window frames. Every year it has got worse. Now, it is all up our bedroom walls and all across the ceilings. Some mornings when you’d wake in the bedroom the tops of the bedclothes would be damp. You could wake coughing and coughing and panicking for your breath.

“I have tried to clean it but you never get it fully cleaned. It’s got to the stage now, especially being pregnant, that I think it’s too dangerous to go near.”

While the mould is confined so far to their bedroom, Ms Williams says it’s “beginning to spread” into her daughters’ rooms.

“The two younger girls constantly have a cough. They were puking from a cough at one stage, with sore throats. They are missing school. They never want to bring friends back here and my youngest is getting play therapy for anxiety.

“I get very down with it, am on medication for my mental health. I am constantly sick and I’m very worried about bringing a baby back to this house.”

Cork County Council has been contacted for comment. Landlord Ger Fitzgibbon, when contacted, said he was unaware of the issues and had not been contacted by either the council or Ms Williams. He would contact both as soon as possible, he said.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times