Call for ring-fenced fund for schools to provide for homeless children

Group says families should be given supports to uphold their children’s right to education

The children featured in the report experienced frequent school absences attributed to poor diet, inadequate rest and poor living conditions. Photograph: iStock

The children featured in the report experienced frequent school absences attributed to poor diet, inadequate rest and poor living conditions. Photograph: iStock

 

The Government should establish a ring-fenced fund for schools to provide additional resources to cater for the needs of children experiencing homelessness, according to a new report.

Published by the Children’s Rights Alliance and titled Home Works: A Study on the Educational Needs of Children Experiencing Homelessness and Living in Emergency Accommodation, the report highlights the negative emotional and educational impact homelessness can have on the lives of children.

A total of 20 parents (19 mothers, one father) from 19 families participated in the study while 25 primary schools and 21 post-primary schools also took part in the research.

The families had a total of 38 dependent children living with them in homeless accommodation - 19 girls and 19 boys - with ages ranging from five months to 17 years.

Scarce financial resources, long journeys to and from school, unaffordable transport costs, lack of appropriate facilities for food preparation and storage are all factors that compromise the ability of homeless children to succeed at school.

Along with inadequate facilities for sleep and the maintenance of personal hygiene, these factors can result in ill health, both physical and mental. Poor living conditions can lead to irritability, exhaustion, low self-esteem as well as feelings of social isolation among children experiencing homelessness.

Access to a sufficient and nutritionally balanced diet was repeatedly identified by parents as a factor that negatively impacts children’s educational participation.

Difficulties in establishing and maintaining children’s bedtime routines while living in homeless accommodation were also cited.

The children featured in the report experienced frequent school absences and parents described how infections - including chicken pox, ear infections and head lice - were common, and difficult to treat and manage while living in overcrowded and confined accommodation.

The report recommends that the Government creates a fund for the provision of supports for children living in emergency and temporary accommodation.

Supports would include psychological assessment and support, extracurricular activities, home-work clubs, additional tuition or wrap-around services delivered within the school premises.

Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, said: “Having a home is fundamental to any of your basic needs being met but education in this circumstance provides the stability and certainty that children need in their lives.

“One of the things that comes through is how effective the schools were in supporting children - and that is despite the fact that there is no national policy guidance in how to respond to this group of children.

“A lot of them had come up with their own policies,” she said.

Choosing either transport or food

Some parents described challenges in providing school lunches while living in emergency accommodation, while others reported that they had to choose between paying for transport to school and feeding their children.

The report says schools making provision for children experiencing homelessness should also have access to resources and facilities to provide them with regular, nutritious food.

While homeless children have positive attitudes towards schooling, teachers reported that children experiencing homelessness could find aspects of learning challenging.

To counter this, Ms Ward said the Home School Community Liaison (HSCL) scheme, where coordinators work to enhance pupils’ outcomes and learning opportunities, should be extended to non-Deis schools.

“What was crystal clear was having a school home liaison officer - and it is only in Deis schools at the moment - was key because that teacher can do all the follow-up work with the family with dignity.

“What was coming through in the research was that the schools outside the Deis programme just didn’t have the same facility, they didn’t have those resources,” she said.

The report also recommends an end to the practice of families having to find their own emergency housing “with immediate effect” and says the Government should commit to ending the use of emergency hotel and B&B-type accommodation within a specific period of time.

Families with children should not be required to live in emergency or temporary accommodation for more than six months and figures relating to the type of provision and period of homelessness for families with dependent children should be maintained and published on a monthly basis.

Despite their difficult situation, Ms Ward said the children and their parents all had high aspirations.

“All of the 20 families interviewed had really high aspirations for their children and the children had really high aspirations for themselves so even though they are going through this housing and homeless crisis they still want to get on in school so anything we can do to support that is I think critically important”

The latest homeless figures published by the Department of Housing are for the month of May and show there were 1,338 families, including 2,886 children, in emergency accommodation in Dublin. This compares with 1,099 families, with 2,266 children, in May 2017 – a 21 per cent increase in families and a 27 per cent increase in children.

Case Study: ‘I was very depressed at the start’

Jessica is a 24-year-old mother of two children, Clare (aged three) and Peter (aged two). Jessica presented as homeless to her local authority in 2017 following six months living with friends and family members while attempting to source affordable rental accommodation.

At the time of interview, Jessica had been living in supported temporary accommodation in North County Dublin for four months. Prior to this, the family had spent three months moving between various hotels and bed and breakfasts in the greater Dublin region.

Jessica’s son Peter was born with a complex medical condition that resulted in physical disability and severely reduced mobility. He has required ongoing medical intervention and therapeutic support since birth and requires use of a wheelchair. Jessica described how the multiple changes in accommodation impacted on her children, particularly her daughter Clare (aged three):

“When we were in the hotel and moving around, Clare’s behaviour got very, very bad you know. She was very, I don’t like to say bold but she was very bold, you know she was just acting up all the time like, attention-seeking and screaming, all this stuff.

“She lashed out all the time, you know we’d come back to the hotel, and then, if we were after booking out and booking back in, we’d change room, like they’d give us a different room. Clare wouldn’t understand. She’d be on the floor in the hallway shouting, ‘This is our house!’ You know so I had to kind of explain to her somehow like, ‘No we’re in this one today’, it wasn’t nice to try to explain that to her”.

Predictability

Jessica reported that consistency in childcare provision had supported Clare and Peter in re-establishing routines and predictability. Despite travelling for an hour each morning, Jessica explained that maintaining the provision is a priority for the family as the children have formed relationships with staff and other children in the setting.

The pre-school educators have an awareness of Peter’s physical needs and have made adaptations to the physical environment, as well as working with his physiotherapist to support his movement and emerging autonomy within the setting. Clare has formed relationships with her teachers and classmates and Jessica has been provided with advice and information on parenting programmes and financial supports for parents caring for a child with a disability.

“They love it, they love coming here like. I remember at the start Peter wouldn’t come; now he won’t come home with me. I go in every day and he says, ‘No’ and like they love it here like they’re always here, they know what to expect, they get to have loads of fun.

“I think it was great at the start because I was kind of, I was very depressed at the start, and I wasn’t kind of present with them or doing what I should have been really doing with them, so at least I knew they were getting that here, you know they were getting the one-to-one attention that they kind of needed.”

Jessica believes that accessibility to affordable, high quality childcare has provided her children with secure routines to support development and learning as well as providing her with time to seek long-term accommodation and a return to employment. Jessica is a university graduate and at the time of interview was preparing to commence employment.

“If I have access to having them in a full time crèche, then I’m going to be working. I’m actually making a life for myself, where I don’t have to be dependent on the social welfare or dependent on social housing.

“I’m going to have to try, it’s going to be a bit rocky I’d say at the start but it’ll be worth it. It’s not really for the money for me, it’s kind of to get my sanity back and my career back on track.”