Child homelessness: The worst thing I’ve ever seen

Three frontline professionals give a glimpse of what they’re witnessing

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For every one of the 3,821 children reported homeless this week, certainties have been stripped out of their childhood in a very personal way.

With no place to call home, the reassuring routine of family life on which children thrive is thrown into chaos. From meals and bedtime to school and playtime, nothing is as it should be.

“Heartbreaking” is a word used time and time again by professionals who see the realities of these children’s lives, on which the rest of us, perhaps, prefer not to dwell. It’s an understandable coping mechanism to ignore it because it’s almost too horrendous to think about, says one social worker.

Their childhood is being blighted in such a way that even if they were all housed in the morning, the effects of homelessness are likely to continue to ripple through body and mind right into adulthood.

“The children’s time is now – they’re never going to get back those two years in a hotel room,” says one primary school teacher.

Here three frontline professionals give a glimpse of what they’re witnessing among homeless families:


The hospital social worker

Think about a mother with a homeless family living in one hotel room dealing with a vomiting bug, says Anne Marie Jones, head medical social worker at Temple Street Children’s University Hospital in Dublin.

“What do you do with the dirty sheets, with the smell? Where do you get disinfectant?”

In a normal family home it takes a lot to cope with vomiting children. “If you’re dealing with that in a hotel room, it’s just unthinkable”.

Even worse to contemplate are the lives of homeless families who have a child with long-term illness. Children with cystic fibrosis, neurological disorder, autism, significant developmental delay – they have all been arriving in the city centre hospital’s emergency department (ED) for healthcare and reporting themselves to be homeless.

“That touches our heart very much here, as we know what it takes to care for a child with those sort of illnesses. But the idea that any family would have to deal with that illness in a homeless scenario, going from hotel room to hotel room, nearly tipped us over the edge,” says Jones.

It is why the hospital felt compelled to make a public statement earlier this year about what it was seeing coming through the doors of the ED. It reported a 29 per cent increase in the number of homeless children attending in 2018, compared with the previous year. Nearly one in four of these had trauma injuries, such as cuts, burns and self-harm, many of which staff believe wouldn’t have happened if the families were in a home.

“If you are trying to learn to walk in a hotel room you are going to fall down and hit your head,” says Jones. In such cramped conditions, a toddler exploring the world is in greater danger of pulling the kettle down when a parent is trying to make a cup of tea.

Another big worry is that 26 per cent of the 842 homeless children seen in the ED in 2018 were less than a year old.

“Obviously when we see younger children, we are very cognisant of how vulnerable they are. They can’t speak for themselves; they can’t necessarily protect themselves.”

Family hubs aren't the answer to everything but they are a great start. Parents can cook, get a routine and schedule. They know they are going to be there for their child going to school

The hospital started watching figures in 2017 for homeless children attending because staff were becoming concerned but they hoped it was just a blip. “Then when we monitored the figures again and realised it had increased, we were quite taken aback. We felt this was very important to say publicly.”

Even robust healthy children find it difficult to deal with homelessness, she points out. It is a challenge to ensure they are not affected long-term by their living conditions, missing school, lack of play facilities and not being able to have friends over.

“If you are not having those things in life and also dealing with a chronic illness, how are we ever going to able to justify this situation to these children when they are adults, that they were so disadvantaged during their young childhood years?”

Sometimes, she says, it’s simple things that can trip families up when they are trying to provide the best for their child. For instance, one family they have had a few times in the hospital ended up in a B&B well outside the city.“Yet they need to bring their children to regular outpatient appointments – where do you get the bus fare to do that?”

While the housing crisis is complex, that are everyday matters which could be sorted to make life for the homeless that little bit easier.

“Family hubs aren’t the answer to everything but they are certainly a great start,” she adds. “Parents can cook, they can get a routine and schedule. They know they are going to be there for their child going to school. It is certainly better than a hotel room.”


The community project leader

A mother of four wheeling the entire life of her family around in a buggy is an image that sticks in the mind of Barnardos worker Mary Corrigan.

Their home having been burnt out and the father in prison, “they were on night by night accommodation”, she says. The eldest child, a 10-year-old boy, couldn’t stick it anymore and was staying with a grandparent. But there was no room for the rest of them.

The mother and three younger children were placed in a hotel near the airport. To get her two boys, aged seven and nine, to school in Finglas she had to get a shuttle bus from the hotel to the airport; catch a bus from the airport into the city centre and then get a bus from the city centre into Finglas.

Then she was just pushing her youngest four-year-old child in a buggy around until his brothers finished school at 1.30pm and 2.30pm. She was doing the bus runs “hell or high water” because social workers said her children needed to be in school and “she just had this fear that her children would be taken”, says Corrigan.

The youngest child was so stressed he wouldn’t go to his Early Start programme. “He just wouldn’t separate from the mum.”

They managed to get an emergency referral for him into the Barnardos early-years services in south Finglas, where Corrigan is project leader, and work there to alleviate his distress. Direct transport from the airport hotel was arranged through Ireland Funds aid, and the boys were all linked into an after-school club so they could get a hot dinner.

While that family is coming up to a year and a half in homeless accommodation, at least they are now in a hub within walking distance of school.

A physio couldn't find any reason why a three-year-old boy had an unusual walk and very underdeveloped core muscles. It was simple: 'The child was never out of the buggy'

In one of its early-year services 11 out of 14 of the group are currently homeless or have been impacted by homelessness in the past year, says Corrigan, who sees how traumatised the children are, irrespective of their background.

They tend to be either withdrawn or acting out quite aggressively, “angry with their mam or dad, picking up on their stress. Even at age 3½ they are walking around carrying the weight of the world.”

Considering that parenting can be a tough job in the best of circumstances, it’s a “phenomenal ask” of these parents to cope “on the run”, unable to do the daily basics of cooking or washing clothes for their children. Toilet training is delayed and younger children spending too long in a push-chair is unavoidable.

Corrigan remembers one three-year-old attending a physio who couldn’t find any reason why the boy had an unusual walk and very underdeveloped core muscles. It was simple, “the child was never out of the buggy”. After 12 weeks of enjoying the centre’s outdoor space, he was flying around.

She feels strongly that access to food or cooking facilities must be provided in all emergency accommodation.

A law limiting the time families could spend in emergency accommodation would help to safeguard children into the future, she believes. But the “fix” is not just about building houses.

Resources need to be pulled together to support these most vulnerable children. “That will be more cost-effective now, to avoid all the long-term challenges that are going to be ahead.”

Corrigan recently visited a mother who had been housed with her five children but was very upset and struggling.

“She had basically been told you have a beautiful house now, what more do you need?” But that family had been homeless for three years, after the mother had to leave a violent relationship, and it wasn’t that simple. “The oldest boy, a teenager, is self-harming and is very physically and verbally abusive towards [his] mum.”

It is very difficult for such parents to respond appropriately to challenging behaviour, particularly when they are so overburdened by the realities of their life.


The teacher

Michelle has a pile of cushions in the corner of the classroom where she teaches first-class pupils at a Deis primary school in one of the most socio-economically deprived areas of north Dublin.

When she sees children coming in exhausted after yet another sleepless night in emergency housing accommodation she’ll encourage them to go to the corner to read a book “and they’re out for the count”.

Almost one in 10 of the pupils has experienced homelessness, says Michelle, who asks that her name be changed and the school not be identified to protect the children’s privacy.

Despite leading chaotic domestic lives, most parents in emergency accommodation do their best to get their children into school. It is the one consistent place where they can be normal and have friends.

One homeless family, she recalls, had to move to a town 27km away to get rental accommodation. “They were up at 5.30am every morning.”

Children often come in hungry or are surviving on “crappy food”, says Michelle, who has also worked as home-school liaison officer. Many would either have put on, or lost, a lot of weight through not eating properly and not having access to fresh food.

“One of our families was threatened with being put out of the hotel because she had a microwave in the room and was trying to do veggies and stuff. They said it was a fire hazard; they couldn’t even have a toaster in the room. I have seen families boiling eggs in the kettle in the hotel room.”

If there are left-over lunches at school, “you’d try to put extra things in the school bag and try not to draw attention to it”. While some of the kids don’t mind saying they are homeless, others are very guarded about it, “especially the older children”.

If the children need to sleep, we let them have a sleep at school. If they need time to talk about a worry, we try to give them that. If they need food, we try to give them that

Teachers do what they can for them, and on occasion they’ll wash school uniforms if the parents can’t.

“If they need to sleep, we let them have a sleep; if they need time to talk about a worry, we try to give them that; if they need food, we try to give them that.

“Education is coming after that. Our job is teaching and learning, it is not supposed to be looking after the very basic needs.”

It’s more than seven years since Michelle first noticed signs of homelessness coming into the classroom. She started to flag issues but reckons it took another two or more years before officialdom began to take notice and act in the evolving crisis.

“It got steadily worse; it is coming in batches. We would have families homeless for upwards of two years.”

She has seen a family of four or five in one room with nowhere to hang clothes; the baby on the bed with nowhere to crawl and missing developmental milestones. The TV on in the corner and parents on the phone trying to organise where they are going to stay next.

Larger families are likely to have to wait longest to be housed, she suggests, “because there are very few four-bedroom council houses and, with the overcrowding legislation, they can’t put them in anything less”.

Living on top of each other is a recipe for family strife. “Can you imagine not being able to get away from your partner and your kids even for five minutes? It’s leading to a lot of relationship breakdown.”

She’s not sure passing legislation to limit the amount of time a family can be housed in emergency accommodation would help.

“I don’t think it will get the houses built any faster because it will just be ‘where do we go now with them?’ It’s a hard one.”

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