Trapped: Life in Ireland’s homeless hotels
More than 1,000 homeless families live in single rooms in hotels and B&Bs. Some of them tell us about daily life.
“We’re like sardines in a can”: Claire’s hotel room, drawn by her son
“Please God we will get a place and they can have their own rooms, and have their friends over”: a drawing by one of Claire’s sons of his ideal house; he’d like to live in the one in the middle
This week Minister for Housing Simon Coveney published Rebuilding Ireland, an action plan for housing and homelessness that includes plans to provide 47,000 units of social housing in the next six years and a promise to end hotel living for most homeless families by this time next year.
Up to 130,000 people and families are estimated to be on local authority housing lists. Right now 1,078 homeless families, including 2,206 children, live in hotels and in bed and breakfasts. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive estimates that €47 million will be spent on emergency hotel accommodation in the capital in 2016.
Life varies from hotel to hotel. In some the homeless families, victims of spiralling rents and housing shortages, are accommodated among the other guests. In others they are marking time in annexed areas with separate entrances. Some hotels cater for a handful of homeless families. Others have up to 90 families each. Focus Ireland now has caseworkers in several hotels.
The threat of being moved on is always there. On Thursday of this week five homeless families were facing eviction from Lynam’s Hotel in Dublin, which has gone into receivership.
This article was originally intended to be about the kinds of communities that develop in hotels for the homeless. But after talking to people living in them it was clear that developing communities is impossible in the circumstances. House rules sometimes make it difficult for people to socialise. Children are forbidden from playing in corridors. Some hotels are even reported to have had curfews.
Different rules seem to apply for homeless people and regular guests at some hotels. In many places they aren’t permitted to have guests in their rooms. (One person I spoke to was asked to leave a hotel for having a guest.) I visited one hotel, but other interviewees were worried that visiting them would contravene the rules, so we met elsewhere.
Many are far from their families, schools and the communities they know. In some hotels residents have access to kitchens. They don’t in others, but they aren’t allowed to cook food in their rooms. Some families in hotels and B&Bs have had to deal with damp rooms and antisocial behaviour. If they have complaints they often worry that they’ll be seen as troublemakers, which will hinder them getting a home. Many praise the staff but also feel monitored and stigmatised. They worry about creating normal lives for their children. Many suffer, understandably, from anxiety and depression.
According to Focus Ireland, people spend an average of 10½ months in this situation, although one woman I met has lived in various hotels for more than two years. Stays of more than a year are common. Some people opt to take the household assistance payment, a support scheme that helps those with long-term housing needs access private rental accommodation. Others are nervous about this, as it means being taken off the general housing list.
Everyone I speak to knows their number on the housing list.
For every family who move on from hotel accommodation, says Focus Ireland, three more enter homelessness. In June alone, 72 families in Dublin became newly homeless.
ClaireThere are more than 50 homeless families in one section of a Dublin hotel. Claire and her three children have been living in one room for four months.
As she talks to me her three-year-old son lies on the bed watching cartoons, interrupting occasionally with enthusiasm.
“Big balloon!” he says at one point.
“Yes, love, big balloon,” says Claire.
In their room are a double bed and three single beds divided by small lockers. “We’re all in a row, like sardines in a can,” Claire says, laughing sadly. Recently in the night her 12-year-old son reached out in his sleep and touched her face. “That’s how close the beds are.”
She has clothes hanging on a rack by the window; the hotel management doesn’t like to see clothes drying elsewhere. “This one room,” she says, “it’s your sitting room, your bedroom, your kitchen, your laundry room.”
Still, she says, it’s better than the last room they had in the same hotel. That was damp, which caused her lung problems and left her needing steroids.
Claire says she has had a string of bad luck. She was working for years, but the job came to an end. Before she came here she and her family lived happily for three years in a rented house in a suburb on the other side of the city, where her children are in school. She had to leave because her landlord needed to move in to be near his sick father. When she lost that home she couldn’t find anything affordable on rent allowance.
During term time the family are up at 6.30am. The older children take turns getting dressed in the bathroom. They have breakfast in the room, but Claire’s youngest can’t eat, because “he’ll just get sick on the bus”. Her oldest children get two buses to school. Claire goes with them because they’re “not very streetwise”. Once they are there she finds a friend who can heat up her youngest son’s breakfast. Then she spends the day walking around, until it’s time to go home.
This year her teenage daughter did her Junior Certificate. “It was hard for her having a three-year-old running around the bed with his trains while she’s trying to study.”
Claire was relieved when term ended, partly because of the gruelling routine but also because children at her daughter’s school were beginning to realise that something was up. None of her classmates knows that she’s homeless. “She won’t tell them, because she’s embarrassed,” Claire says.
Now they are all talking about doing something nice to celebrate the exam results, and she’s worried again.
Cooking is difficult. There is a kitchen, but only one cooker between dozens of families. Tensions can run high. Claire spends a lot of her time walking between her room and the kitchen, waiting for her chance to cook. “The kids end up waiting so long I give them a Pot Noodle or a bowl of cereal.”
They sit on their beds eating dinner. At night, all in one room, they have to turn the television off early, so her youngest can sleep. “It sounds like prison doesn’t it?” she says.
Downstairs is a “play area”, but there are no toys in it. “It’s just a room.” It is beside a smoking area. People sometimes come from the “nice part of the hotel” holding pints, she says. When they see the children “they say, ‘Hang on, did we come to the wrong place?’ ”
A few families have been thrown out, she says. “They had kids running wild around the corridors.”
Claire is friendly with other mothers in the hotel. “We have our little chats,” she says. “Though we’re not supposed to.”
Are they not meant to talk to each other?
“We’re not allowed to socialise in the hotel,” she explains. They are not allowed to go into one another’s rooms. “I understand it from the hotel’s point of view . . . There have been troublemakers.”
Claire did receive permission to babysit a neighbour’s children when the woman had to go to hospital. “But I couldn’t just say, ‘Let’s all get together, your kids and mine, and watch a film in my room.’ ”
Claire has health issues, but she’s hoping to “find a little job” when her youngest goes to playschool. Her most immediate issue, however, is where to send her older son to secondary school. She doesn’t know whether he should go near the hotel or two buses away, where his sister is at school.
Claire is very worried about how this life is affecting her children. “They cry a lot,” she says. “Teenagers need their own space. If there’s a little argument they can go up to their room, then come back and say sorry.”
Her job now, she says, is to distract them with trips to the park and summer camps. “They don’t have friends any more, so I have to be their friend . . . I have the odd day when I’m down, but my job is to be strong.”
What does she hope for?
“Please God we will get a place soon and I’ll get a job,” she says. “I want to be able to say to my daughter, ‘Right, what colour do you want to have your bedroom? You can have your friends over, watch a movie, do what you like. This is your room.’ ”
MarkEvery family I meet knows the date they officially became homeless. “Since June 2nd of last year,” says Mark, an unemployed former van driver who lives in a hotel room with his 12-year-old son.
What happened? “It was strange, because he was a brilliant landlord,” Mark says. “Then one day he told me he had to claim bankruptcy and was selling the house. It got nasty.” The landlord sent people “knocking on the door, intimidating me, trying to get me out”.
Mark never got his deposit back, which meant that when he was offered a flat in the same building he couldn’t afford to take it. When searching for a new place he found that those willing to take rent allowance were far too expensive. “The social wouldn’t pay the difference, and I couldn’t make up the difference.”
Mark ended up sofa surfing for a while, sleeping on his mother’s couch with his son on the mattress beside him. “I never dreamed I’d be homeless,” he says.
Since then Mark and his son have lived in three hotels. At the start they treated it like an adventure. “It was all exciting [for him]. But I could see all this stuff that he mightn’t have seen. The last place was most difficult: kids wandering around morning, noon and night, a lot of drug abuse. I didn’t want my son around it – the arguing, the drinking.”
He ended up intervening to protect a woman from her boyfriend during an altercation. A few days later they were transferred to the hotel that they live in now. The rooms were smaller, but he was relieved.
When Mark arrived here it turned out that he knew his neighbour. “She was the sister of a good friend of mine. I was like, ‘Howiya Tracy.’ ” He laughs.
For the most part he keeps to himself. “If someone stops and talks, I talk. I wouldn’t be rude or ignorant, but there’s a lot of backbiting in the place. People take things up wrong.”
What is the backbiting about? If someone does get housed, he says, everyone tries to work out why it was them. “ ‘How did they get that house? I was here longer.’ But you don’t know their circumstances. Maybe they had a child with a disability. Maybe they were somewhere else before they were here.”
The biggest problem, Mark says, is the food. “You’re constantly living off rolls and sandwiches and fast food. It’s not healthy. I’ve noticed my little lad’s piled on some amount of weight, and I’ve issues with my stomach.”
And being homeless costs money, he says. “You’re always eating takeaway, or I’m taking him to the pictures, trying to keep him occupied. We used to live very near family, my mother and his mother. Now we have to travel.”
He’s most worried about the effect on his son. “I get so frustrated and melted because I can see the little fella is so pissed off. He just doesn’t want to be there, and it’s heartbreaking to see.”
Mark tries to keep the boy busy with sport and football. But his son is shy. “He doesn’t talk with anyone in the hotel,” he says. “That’s the type of young fella he is. It takes a lot for him to open up to people. So moving around, he didn’t like that at all.”
Mark also realises that he depends on his son. “When he goes to his mother I just lie on the bed. It’s Groundhog Day. One hour feels like 10. I go to the shop or walk up the road, to waste an hour. It gets on top of you.”
Sometimes he calls his son’s mother. “Do you want to take him for the night? Then he says he wants to stay with me. I tell him if he doesn’t go to her we’re going to end up arguing. Then we argue anyway. Then he sits there in the horrors, and I feel guilty and to blame for all this. I wish we had our own place and he could just come and go with his friends.”
Mark sighs. “I’m a bloke. We’re meant to be tough, but being stuck in a small room for so long. It’s not healthy for the head.”
Sarah and JoeJoe, who is 21, his partner, Sarah, who is 20, and their 2½-year-old daughter were living in Joe’s mother’s house until five months ago. As we speak their daughter is drawing with chalk and chatting away to herself.
“We had an argument with my ma, and she kicked us out,” says Joe. They couldn’t afford any of the houses for rent. They were told how to register as homeless and were placed in the hotel where they’ve lived since.
“The first room had mould,” says Joe. “I’ve bad asthma already so was getting bad breathing problems, and the baby was coughing.”
They show me a photograph of mould on a bedroom wall. “We went down and they said, ‘Oh, we’re so sorry about that,’ and moved us to another room. I think they knew about the mould.”
“They apologised,” says Sarah.
“But they shouldn’t have left us there,” says Joe.
They find it very difficult to live in one room. “It causes trouble between us,” Joe admits. “If she’s pissed off with me she can’t walk into another room.”
“Unless you want to sit in the bathroom,” says Sarah and laughs.
Joe spends his day out of the hotel. He is in a back-to-education programme and wants to go to college. Sarah is in the hotel all day.
“It’s hard to stay in the room with a baby,” she says. “If she plays with her toys there’s nowhere to walk. I’m cleaning as she’s playing, and you’re walking on her toys. I go to the play area” – a hotel room set aside as a playroom – “and have a cup of tea with the other girls.”
Do they know their neighbours enough to have them babysit for them?
“No,” says Sarah.
The Focus Ireland rep chips in. “And it would also be in the house rules that the supervision of the children has to be by the parents at all times.”
Do children play on the corridors? “They do, but they’re not supposed to,” says Joe.
He and Sarah have different views about socialising with their neighbours.
“She has a few people here she talks to,” he says. “I keep myself to myself. Most blokes here, they keep themselves to themselves. They’re not there to be your friend. They’re there to get a gaff or get off the street.”
“He sits in the room all the time,” says Sarah.
Joe changes the subject back to the practicalities of living here. “The washing machine doesn’t work.”
“The clothes sometimes come out dirtier than when we put them in,” says Sarah. “And €4 each time.”
Cooking is also difficult, says Joe. There’s a shared kitchen, but “food gets robbed”.
What’s next for them? They’re waiting on the housing assistance payment scheme, says Joe. Some residents would prefer not to take this, because it means being taken off the housing list. “But we just want to get out of here,” say Joe. “I’d probably take anywhere at this stage.”
“I wouldn’t go as far as ‘anywhere’,” says Sarah. “I want to be close to family. It’s hard enough now. I see me ma once a week now.”
Joe worries that they will be here for a long time. “There are people here a year and a half. I think we’re going to end up like that as well.”
Sarah says she’s getting used to it.
“I was traumatised when I first walked in here,” she says. “I was like, I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe that I’m living here. Oh my God I don’t want to be here. Oh my God this is our home now. I’m homeless. What are we meant to do?” She laughs. “I don’t have that feeling any more.”
Joe still hates it. “It’s torture being in the one room.”
KarenIn the corridor of the motorwayside hotel in which Karen lives with her two sons, who are 10 and six, some women are sitting on the floor talking. Many homeless families live here.
Karen’s “home” is a nice hotel room but a bad family apartment. There are two beds, one single and one double, which Karen shares with her youngest. “He’s a bed wetter,” she says.
In the corner is a fridge with several cereal boxes perched on top. On the floor next to it are a kettle and toaster. No one is allowed to cook in their room, and there’s no kitchen. Is she allowed to have a toaster? She looks momentarily worried. “I don’t know. But they haven’t given out to me.”
Karen suffers from anxiety and frets about accidentally breaking the rules. (She got into trouble at another hotel for inviting a friend to her room.) Everyone is given a list of rules when they arrive.
She has been homeless since early in 2014, when she and her boys were evicted from their home of five years. She had called the council healthandsafety officer about black mould that was developing around the house.
“It ate through the wardrobes and the children’s clothes. My son had asthma as a baby, and I didn’t want him to get it again. The landlord didn’t like it at all. That’s when I got my first notice to say she wanted me to leave.”
She never got her deposit back, she says. She couldn’t afford the rent anywhere after that.
This is the best hotel she’s been in. At the first hotel she was miles from her children’s school. (“I counted 20 traffic lights.”) There was a lot of antisocial behaviour, and she spent her whole time terrified.
“I’d park in a lane and run with the kids to the room, never making eye contact . . . They cried, which left me crying at the end of the bed when they were asleep.”
So she asked to be transferred. She worries that this is why she hasn’t been housed while others, who were homeless for shorter periods, have been.
Karen is constantly trying to create a sense of normality for her children. They spend half the time with their father. “They get to feel normal there,” she says. She tries to get them out and about during the day, to the park or the library. She has a car, and she doesn’t know how she’d cope without it. “Those ladies are stuck,” she says of the women in the corridor.
Does she interact much with her neighbours? Some of them seem nice, she says, but she’s wary of making friends. “The management doesn’t want you interacting.”
Why? “They don’t want you going into each other’s rooms. And if they sit out there for long the manager comes to whoosh them on. ‘Come on now, girls, you can’t be sitting here.’ ”
How has living like this affected her children? “They’re very angry,” she says. “It makes them wilder in a way. Not just my kids. Last night kids were playing knick-knack on my door.”
There’s nowhere to cook dinner and only a petrol station and a takeaway within walking distance. “You can go down for breakfast,” she says, “but with my anxiety there are an awful lot of days when I won’t go down. When the kids are in school uniform people wonder, ‘Do you live here? Why do you live here?’ ”
Who asks? “Americans or English people who don’t know what Ireland’s going through. We become another story for them.”
Karen and her younger son are underweight. She has been eating food supplements prescribed for her late grandfather, who had cancer, and she tries to go to the gym every day. She’s begun to get vertigo. “It’s caused by anxiety. It’s like I’m falling.”
Her oldest son has become overweight and developed a nervous tick. “He was eating the skin off his hands, and they were so raw he had to wear gloves to stop him from eating them,” she says. “It was the anxiety, the nerves – it was unreal.”
It’s difficult for him, she says. They regularly pass the house in which they used to live, and to make matters worse he knows the boy who now lives there. “He sees him playing with his old friends. He said, ‘That landlord kicked us out of our home, and now Josh gets to live there. He gets to play with my friends.’ ”
Sometimes Karen is anxious and tearful. But she’s also funny and hopeful. “I don’t want to seem like a crybag,” she says and laughs.
She’s waiting to hear if she’s been accepted on a floristry course, and she shows me a photograph of a beautiful wreath she made for her grandfather’s funeral. “I brought the flowers up here, washed them in the sink and laid them out here on the floor,” she says. “I’d love a garden, so I could grow flowers.”
Two-bedroom council homes are being built nearby, and she hopes to get one. “I passed there the other day, and the builders were working on it.”
Karen has been told that she could be here until Christmas. In the meantime she has done her best to make the room as homely as possible.
Children’s drawings are stuck to the side of the wardrobe with Blu-tack. (“I think it’s okay,” Karen says. “The cleaners didn’t take them down.”)
The single bed is covered in stuffed toys, and a little Play-Doh object adorns a shelf above her bed. “My son made it for me to stick my earrings in at night.” There’s also an engraved glass heart hanging there. Karen’s older son bought for her birthday. It reads: “The best journey always takes us home.”