Life in a homeless hub: ‘I have nowhere to go... If I’m upset, I get under my bed’

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Rachel (9) travels from Gardiner Street in Dublin to her school near her former home in Tallaght

“My friends say, ‘It’s so sad that you’re homeless’,” says nine-year-old Rachel. “I say ‘I’ve explained this to you 99,596 million times. I’m not homeless. I just live in a hub.’ And they say, ‘What’s a hub?’ and I say, ‘It’s like a hotel’ and they say, ‘Do you get waitresses?’ And I go, ‘Let’s just talk about what we did at the weekend instead.’”

She sighs. Rachel lives with her mother and sister. They have a room with two beds in a “family hub” on Gardiner Street in Dublin’s inner city. Family hubs were first launched in 2017 as a way to respond to the increasing problem of family homelessness. Some of these hubs are owned and run by charities like the Peter McVerry Trust or Crosscare, but the hub Rachel lives in is privately owned with the additional social care services provided by Focus Ireland.

There are 70 families living in the hub where Rachel and her family have been living for the past seven months. Since September there are 3,342 children reliant on emergency homeless accommodation in Ireland, rising by almost 1,000 from the year before. “It reached a post-Covid five-year low of 2,129 in June last year and has been on an almost constant rise since then,” says Focus Ireland’s director of advocacy, Mike Allen. Rachel is one of these children.

In Focus Ireland’s offices, campaign co-ordinator Louise Bayliss and child support worker Caroline Kelly introduce me to Rachel, her mother, Michelle, and her five-year-old sister, Katie, “a little angel”, according to Bayliss.


“She’s not a little angel,” says Rachel, firmly, as she draws pictures on a white board. She loves art and draws brilliant pictures as we talk.

Michelle, Rachel and Katie (not their real names) are from Tallaght. Michelle has a job in the Square in Tallaght. Before they came to the hub they were renting an apartment in City West. There was space there for the children and it was much closer to their schools and extended family. Michelle always paid the rent on time. But the property was sold.

She couldn’t find an affordable place to live. She thought the move to the family hub would be temporary, but it’s looking increasingly long term. In the past it would have been possible to at least move to a hub closer to her extended family when a space came up, but right now people simply are not leaving the hubs.

Rachel and Katie are still in school in Tallaght, which involves a very long rush hour commute. That must be difficult for Rachel. “No,” says Rachel. “Because I sleep on the Luas.”

“Half the time I’d be asleep myself,” says Michelle. “You’re constantly travelling.”

While the commute is difficult, Michelle wanted to keep some stability in their lives. “I have my best friends in school,” says Rachel. “Don’t tell my other friends but my best friend is Sienna. She’s very sassy.”

Pictures by Rachel from the scrapbook she works on with child support worker Caroline Kelly

Rachel starts to draw their room on the white board. It’s a single room with a single bed and a double bed, and there is a small bathroom. The shower doesn’t always work. The place is generally well run and clean, but they are not allowed to have any cooking equipment in their room except a kettle. Meals are provided in a dining room downstairs, but Rachel and Katie don’t always like the food. Families have access to a small kitchen downstairs “but a lot of people don’t clean as they go”, says Michelle.

Sometimes pigeons get into the room, says Rachel. “I have a pet pigeon called Jeremy. He comes to visit our balcony every day. We give him noodles.”

Rachel likes things to be quiet and the building is very loud. “Don’t even get me started on how loud it is,” she says. “You know what it’s like in a classroom of 100 children? That’s what it sounds like.”

One time at 4 o’clock in the morning there were people running up and down the hall for no reason

—  Rachel (9)

“She used to go out and play on the road with her friends on her bike and her scooter,” says Michelle. “[Now] if she brings her scooter downstairs she’s told, ‘Don’t bring that down, the other kids don’t have one’ or the other kids are dragging out of her to have a shot of it.”

“There’s a little girl who steals my sister’s toys all the time,” says Rachel. She asks Katie: “What did she steal from you?”

“My doll,” says Katie. “My princess dress.”

“These are only small little kids,” says Michelle. “But this creates constant friction with other families.”

Rachel finds it all very oppressive. “I go to the room so I don’t have to listen to chatter chitter,” she says. “When I do come down, I sit outside in the play area. I’ll be sitting writing in my diary about how I feel and then a crowd of people comes out and they start playing a rough game and I back away into the corner… They don’t understand the word ‘sensitive’ and I don’t think they understand the word ‘no’ either.”

Is it always loud? “Yes. Like one time at 4 o’clock in the morning there were people running up and down the hall for no reason.”

Pictures by Rachel from the scrapbook she works on with child support worker Caroline Kelly

On the plus side, Rachel recently made a friend there. “She showed me how good she was at gymnastics and I asked could we be friends and we’ve been friends since.”

What do you like about her? “She’s a kind person and she’s really good at drawing.” She writes “Be kind” on the whiteboard.

It is difficult to play in a normal way in the hub. If children are not being supervised by their parents, they are often sent to their rooms, even if another supervising parent is present, Rachel says. She says she has been told to go to her room by staff members when she is just been sitting in the corridor reading. There is a play area but there is nothing there to play with and some residents smoke nearby. Michelle says there is at least one person living in the hub who is in addiction and some people openly discuss things that “you shouldn’t be talking about in front of children”.

She worries about her children hearing or seeing things that might worry or confuse them. “Mammy’s like this sometimes on the road outside,” says Rachel, miming her mother covering her eyes and ears.

I go out on the balcony and cry because there’s nowhere else to go. I’m a private person but there’s no privacy in that building

—  Michelle, mother

It is the lack of privacy that really gets to Rachel. “I have nowhere to go when I’m annoyed,” she says. “I can lock myself in the bathroom, but I’m not allowed lock the door…If I’m upset, I get under my bed.”

Michelle says: “She pulls the blanket down so no one can see her. She finds it very difficult. She’s very specific [in] everything she does. At night she has her light on for so long and then has her book and she might play her tablet for a little bit. But she can’t do any of that now because we’re in the room on top of her. Every day I try to give her an hour in the room alone.”

Pictures by Rachel from the scrapbook she works on with child support worker Caroline Kelly

Sometimes when Michelle does this, she says she is told by a staff member to return to the room. There is a rule about not leaving children alone in the bedrooms even though that’s exactly what a parent would do in their own home. “Then I go out on the balcony and cry because there’s nowhere else to go,” says Michelle. Later she says: “I’m a private person but there’s no privacy in that building.”

Michelle does her best to keep some normality in her children’s lives. They go on play dates with their schoolfriends and the family spend a lot of time visiting museums and galleries. “I like the one with all the animals in it,” says Rachel, referring to the Natural History Museum. “They put another animal, a big whale in it.”

When Rachel had her First Communion earlier in the year, it all happened from her granny’s house. On Saturdays they go to Tallaght where they visit Michelle’s mother and Rachel goes horse riding. “Remember Doc McStuffins?” says Michelle. “He had a ‘noble steed’. Ever since then she’s had it in her head that she wanted a horse.”

Mammy thinks that [living in the hub] is affecting me in a way how I’m not myself any more

—  Rachel (9)

So she signed her up for the Fettercairn Youth Horse Project where she loves riding and caring for horses. “I do the same horse all the time,” says Rachel. “His name is Bernie. He’s amazing. He wants to run away from the trainer all the time. He doesn’t like the trainer, but he loves me.”

She draws a picture of Bernie and then she starts drawing pictures of the tools she uses to groom the horses. “This is the most popular brush. It’s a body brush.” She draws another. “This one is a comb and you use it with a circular motion...I’m getting a grooming kit this year.”

How does she think living in the hub has affected her? “Well, Mammy thinks that it’s affecting me in a way how I’m not myself any more.”

She has been working closely with Caroline Kelly, her child support worker. Kelly works across a few different hubs with children who are “finding living in the hub difficult”.

“We had a [Focus on Children] campaign last year about child homelessness,” says Louise Bayliss. “We said that there should be a child support worker available for every child.”

At the moment, there is a waiting list because there are simply too many referrals for Kelly to deal with. “There’s just one of me spread across three hubs,” she says.

Rachel loves Kelly. She tells me about meeting her. “I said, ‘I don’t need therapy!’ and Caroline said, ‘It’s not therapy’.”

With Rachel, Kelly works largely through art “because she’s just so creative”.

“We have a scrapbook,” says Rachel.

“And we make animals,” says Kelly.

“I made an owl the other day,” says Rachel. “I call him Jamie the Mystical Artist. He’s blue and purple. He’s got a beret.” She draws him on the board.

How could anybody think that it’s a normal thing to live like this? It’s not a normal way of living. You don’t live in a hotel unless you’re running away from something

—  Michelle, mother

Is art a way of expressing her feelings? “Yes. If I’m angry I’ll draw something angry,” says Rachel. “You can do abstract painting which can help with your problems, using red for anger. I watch people on YouTube doing abstract paintings that turn out to be a masterpiece.”

Was she always good at art? She thinks for a moment. “I wasn’t the best when I was a baby.”

Pictures by Rachel from the scrapbook she works on with child support worker Caroline Kelly

Michelle says she “was delighted that Caroline was there because Rachel is not one to open up to people unless it was me or my mam. And they do need that independence. She worries about me too. Because I’m always sad.”

Before I leave, Rachel starts talking about the Focus Ireland offices which she has seemingly investigated thoroughly. She is impressed by the white board and the motion sensitive taps and the pass-operated doors and the plants, one of which she has named Timmy. “This whole building is magic,” she says. “Does anyone live here?”

“No,” says Louise Bayliss.

“But there’s a big shower here!” says Rachel. “I took one look at that shower and said, ‘I wish that was mine.’”

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times