The Ombudsman for Children has said he was “shocked, but unfortunately not surprised” by figures showing that almost 850 children treated in a Dublin hospital’s emergency department last year were discharged to homelessness.
Dr Niall Muldoon said he had long been highlighting “my concern and outrage” at the rising number of children in homeless accommodation.
“I have warned that there will be a significant long-term impact on both the physical and mental health of the children involved,” he said.
Temple Street Children’s University Hospital said it saw 842 children up to the age of 16 who were discharged with “no fixed address” last year, compared with 651 in 2017 – an increase of 29 per cent.
Emergency department staff looked after homeless children with cystic fibrosis, neurological disorders, severe autism and significant developmental delays, as well as accidental injuries during the year, the hospital said.
Following the publication of the figures, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was accused of normalising homelessness as he defended the Government's approach to housing.
Speaking in the Dáil, Mr Varadkar told Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald that 842 of the roughly 50,000 children who attended the Temple Street emergency department were homeless. He insisted that child poverty had fallen in each of the last four years and that child deprivation was also down.
He insisted that children were “without doubt” Ireland’s most important citizens and that the State had prioritised them with free GP care for those under six, two years of pre-school care, expanded maternity leave and improved social welfare.
However, Ms McDonald accused him of indulging in “self-satisfied patter” and that it appeared as if “you have normalised child homelessness and it seems you make no apology for it”.
Ms McDonald said most of the children affected “have never known any place called home. Instead they’ve known family hubs, hotel rooms and B&Bs where mould on the walls and ceilings impact on their ability to breathe.”
The Taoiseach said social housing delivery had been ramped up with 8,000 such homes made available last year. He said the creation of family hubs, while not a long-term solution to homelessness, gave families an address and full facilities.
Dr Muldoon said his office was currently undertaking a consultation with children and young people living in family hubs, asking them about their experiences.
“The outcome of this consultation will be published in the coming months but it is clear that homelessness and living in an unstable environment is having an extremely negative impact on many young people,” he said.
“Cases of autism, developmental delays, emotional attachment issues, self-harm and accidental injury have all been reported to us. We are talking directly to children as young as five years of age and they are able to tell us the impact that living in one room with their whole family is having on them.”
Mr Varadkar said many of the homeless children who attended Temple Street were living in emergency accommodation and presented with problems such as “chest infections, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting, high blood pressure, chronic diseases like epilepsy and asthma, injuries – all of the many reasons why any child might attend an emergency department”. He said “of course if they’re living in emergency accommodation, that complicates it”.
Dr Muldoon said children and parents who met with his office said that infection control in family hubs was “a real issue” with viruses constantly passing around.
“Parents, who don’t have access to a personal fridge, are hanging antibiotics out windows to ensure they remain cold and are effective for their children. These are the lengths parents are going to,” he said, adding that Temple Street should be commended for gathering the figures and that other hospitals should do the same.