Even prisoners are given a balanced diet. Some children aren’t

Two weeks back at school and our whole family is stressed. But It’s not real stress

You don’t know what stress is unless your kids are terrified their teachers and their classmates will find out they live in an overcrowded bedroom instead of in a three-bed semi, bungalow, or apartment like everyone else. Photograph: Frank Miller

You don’t know what stress is unless your kids are terrified their teachers and their classmates will find out they live in an overcrowded bedroom instead of in a three-bed semi, bungalow, or apartment like everyone else. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Two weeks into school, and one child has lost a tracksuit top. Another is missing a book. No, wait. They’re both missing a book. That makes two books that have vanished without explanation, somewhere between the bookshop and the schoolbag.

Water bottles have been spilt all over homework notebooks. A tin whistle has gone astray. Homework has been forgotten. You can’t remember exactly what time you are supposed to pick them up from their after-school minder. Was it 5.30? 5.45? Will she mind if you’re late? Should you stop to text? Or just step on the accelerator?

You also can’t remember what day soccer starts, or what time Aoife’s birthday party is. One child has mysteriously taken against cheese in his sandwiches. It does funny things to the butter, he says. The other needs a new water bottle. Money is urgently due for stationery and photocopying and school trips, but nobody can remember how much, and nobody knows where the note went, and you all know it’s not going to get paid now anyway. You wonder if they should be doing more after-school activities. Or maybe you wonder if they should be doing fewer. They’re stressed. You’re stressed.

You’re not, though. Not really. Not comparatively. Not unless you’re one of the 1,178.

For a record number of families – 1,178 families in Dublin at the most recent count – these stresses, the normal spills and tips and missing bits of uniform and sandwich-filling rebellions and extra-curricular angst September brings, are the tip of the iceberg.

You don’t know what stress is unless your kids are terrified their teachers and their classmates will find out they live in an overcrowded bedroom

Because, let’s be honest, you don’t know what back-to-school stress is unless your children are among the almost 2,500 in Dublin whose “home” is a hotel room, whose desk is a bed. You don’t know what stress is unless your kids are terrified their teachers and their classmates will find out they live in an overcrowded bedroom instead of in a three-bed semi, bungalow, or apartment like everyone else.

You don’t know what stress is until you’ve had to live on microwaved dinners and food from the chipper for the best part of a year, because you don’t have a kitchen. You don’t know what stress is until your child’s teacher calls to tell you they’ve been falling asleep in class or crying in the toilets again.

I don’t know what that kind of stress is. If you’re enjoying the luxury of reading the newspaper on a Saturday, you probably don’t either. But it shouldn’t take a huge leap of empathy to imagine it.

We need to find homes for these 2,500 children – and as many as 2,800 nationally – not as a kindness, not as an act of compassion, not because we’re Irish and we like to think we’re good like that. We need to sort it out because even the most basic definition of “society” – an aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community – demands we must.

There is no “order” or “community” in a system that knowingly violates a child’s most basic rights

There is no “order” or “community” in a system that knowingly violates a child’s most basic rights. There is no civility in a society that compromises their right to education, prevents them enjoying dignity and privacy, denies them a home and the prospect of decent meals.

Even people in Irish prisons are guaranteed a “healthy, well-balanced and reasonably varied diet”. Children living in hotel rooms are not.

As a country, we have not yet come to terms with the abuses carried out against Irish women and children simply because they didn’t fit our conception of “normal”. In a way, what we’re doing to Irish children now is worse: now we have the benefit of hindsight. We don’t know what the long-term consequences will be for the educational prospects or physical and mental health of the homeless children, but we have seen enough to know those consequences will be devastating.

This is a problem that’s not going to resolve itself, not when every month for the last four years the number of homeless people has risen. Not when the cost of private rented accommodation will go up by 4 per cent every year. Not when house prices are reaching near-boom time increases.

 

And yet, some of the angriest, most articulate protests I’ve heard from members of the public have been the protests by those who don’t want homeless families moved to their neighbourhood. This will be a new ghetto in our community, residents of Clontarf said about a homeless “hub” planned for their area, in letters retrieved under Freedom of Information by The Irish Times. The local community will fight this tooth and nail if we must.

Think about that for a minute, as you pack the school lunches and search for the lost tracksuit tops and fork out for a new tin whistle and complain about the school run or the need to pay your voluntary contribution. Think about the 2,500 homeless children in the capital, and the 2,800 nationally.

Think about the kind of people who prepared to fight “tooth and nail” to protect the value of their property and their neighbourhood, but who are largely mute on the rights of those children. What kind of society does that make us? joconnell@irishtimes.com

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