Jennifer O’Connell: ‘Come to Dublin and take a homeless child’s bed’

Next time you’re moved to fury by something happening to children in Trump’s America, spare a thought for the children in Ireland

Children asleep on metal chairs in Tallaght Garda station on the night of August 8th after they and their mother were forced to sleep there due to lack of emergency accommodation. Photograph: PA Wire

We don’t like seeing images of children in distress. They reach into a primal part of our brain and trigger the release of oxytocin, the empathy hormone.

It wasn't the numbers of immigrant children forcibly taken from their parents that turned the tide of public opinion in America against family separations, to such an extent that President Donald Trump was persuaded to end the widely abhorred policy. It wasn't the international condemnation, or even the words of those who, like Laura Bush, came from his own side.

In the end, what caused Trump to blanch were the photos; the sight of small children with faces contorted in misery and terror as they were confronted by border guards, or curled up under foil blankets on the floor of metal cages. Melania Trump said she hated to "see" children separated from their families. Ivanka Trump said it "looked" bad. Trump, bowing to the pressure, said he "did not like the sight" of families being separated.

The Minister for Housing <a class="search" href='javascript:window.parent.actionEventData({$contentId:"7.1213540", $action:"view", $target:"work"})' polopoly:contentid="7.1213540" polopoly:searchtag="tag_person">Eoghan Murphy</a> said it was 'good' to see a decrease in the number of homeless children, after the data showed there were two fewe'

Around the same time the first of such images were published in America, photos appeared in newspapers here that were, arguably, just as powerful an indictment of our values as a society.


They showed small children sleeping on chairs pulled together in Dublin Garda stations. One photo featured a 10-year-old girl lying across some office-type chairs, wrapped in a Dennis the Menace blanket borrowed from the cells. She was one of 30 children sent to sleep in Garda stations on a single night in May, after staff of Focus Ireland made several hundred phone calls, but were unable to find beds in a B&B or hostel for 12 families.

The homeless agency raised the situation with Tusla, the Minister for Housing, the Minister for Children and the Taoiseach, and was waiting for a response “to what we consider to be an unacceptable situation”. The Garda Representative Association commended the compassion of the gardaí involved, but said Garda stations were “clearly not suitable” places for exhausted small children.

What happened next was nothing very much. The Dáil went off on its holidays. Hotel prices stayed buoyant. Investors got richer. Dublin rents continued their dizzying ascent.

The number of homeless people went up slightly too, to almost 9,900 in June. Meanwhile, the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy said it was "good" to see a decrease in the number of homeless children, after the data showed there were two fewer homeless children. Two. All hail the republic of opportunity.

Sticking plasters

The homeless crisis can’t be solved until the housing crisis is solved, and the Government’s plans to tackle both are stagnating, mired in an over-reliance on the private sector, a reluctance to invest in social housing, a dearth of homes even remotely in the realm of affordable and a sense of powerlessness over rising rents. Some of the sticking plasters that had been offered – like the rapid-build modular apartments on Fishamble Street that invoked emergency provisions and were to be offered to homeless families – were withdrawn over fears they would create a ghetto.

Last week, almost four months on from that first appalling image, another photo surfaced on social media of five children lying on metal chairs in Tallaght Garda station. The photo was taken by the children’s mother. She posted it on social media, saying her family had been “11 years on the housing list, a year on the homeless”.

In this shiny new society of ours, we're still punishing the same people we always have

Anthony Flynn of Inner City Helping Homeless said 16 children slept in Garda stations that night; 48 families did so during July. The homeless crisis gets worse in the summer holidays, because the hotel beds that are often the only buffer between children and actual doorways become harder to find. 'Come to Dublin and take a homeless child's bed' wouldn't make the most compelling marketing pitch for Tourism Ireland, but maybe it would shame us into action.

The problem is complex, and requires resources, imagination and creativity. But most of all, it requires the will to solve it.

I’ve often thought that if mobile phones and social media had been around in the time of the Magdalene Laundries and the Mother and Baby Homes, the inhumanity in those institutions would not have been allowed to continue. Nobody could have claimed they didn’t know what was happening; nobody would have remained unmoved. Now I’m not so sure. Small children are sleeping on cold, hard chairs in Garda stations because they have nowhere else to go. Lone-parent families are the ones most affected. In this shiny new society of ours, we’re still punishing the same people we always have.

The difference is that now we can see the photos. We know exactly what’s happening. And yet, here we are. The response hasn’t been one of a society overcome with outrage, shame or empathy, but one mired in fatigue. What campaigners dread most is what has happened: homeless children have become the norm.

Next time you're moved to tears or fury by something happening to children in Trump's America, spare a thought for the children in Varadkar's Ireland.