Homeless children welcome the relief of returning to school
‘They’re so excited because they haven’t been able to see their friends since school finished’
Being homeless during the summer holidays brings a new set of challenges. Photograph: iStock
Many parents will be celebrating the reopening of schools this week but for families living in emergency accommodation the relief is even more keenly felt.
Sarah* and her three children have been living in a hotel room in Dublin for the past five months. For most of the year, they cope with the restricted living space, but since the children have been off from school, tensions have risen.
“In the hotel, they cannot do anything. It’s like they’re in prison.They keep asking ‘Mummy, can we go out? Mummy, can we go out?’,” explains Sarah, who asked that pseudonym be used to protect her family’s identity.
“They’re just kids so they don’t understand. They want to do these things but they don’t know the issues. They just keep asking ‘Mummy, why are we in the hotel? Mummy, when can we get out of this?’”
Sarah and her three children are one of 1,686 families accessing emergency accommodation, according to the most recent figures. There are 3,675 children in the system.
Experiencing homelessness is difficult for any family, she says, but doing so during the summer holidays brings a new set of challenges.
“For the kids, there is nowhere for them to play. Our house is just one room. There is nowhere for you to tell them to go to bed. We’re all in the same room.”
A single mother, Sarah said she had tried to explain the situation to her children but says they are too young to understand.
“I am very sad because it’s very difficult. It’s very, very stressful because you can’t do anything. I am sad for my kids.”
The family became homeless on returning to Ireland after living in the UK for a period. The accommodation they planned to move into fell through so they stayed with friends for a few nights at first.
Children being out of routine in a new environment can increase the pressure on families experiencing homelessness
Sarah moved to short-term emergency accommodation premises with her two daughters, aged six and eight, and son (four), and stayed there for eight months before being placed in the hotel they are living in now.
Out of routine
Tanya Blyth, Peter McVerry Trust’s director of under-18s, aftercare and family services, says school is often a “protective factor” for children experiencing the uncertainty of homelessness.
“Losing their family home, the familiarity of friends and the community who lived nearby and moving temporarily to another place, while waiting to move again to a new home most certainly impacts children and their experience of important milestones,” she says.
“Children being out of routine in a new environment can increase the pressure on families experiencing homelessness. Trying to keep children occupied and ensuring that they enjoy their summer holidays is an extra pressure on parents during the holiday period and the financial cost of this can be a further burden for families.”
Sarah tried to bring her kids out during the summer months, whether to the park or the beach, but the location of her hotel means access to public transport is difficult, so she often has to pay for taxis.
“Sometimes when I take them out I spend about €50 on the transport so I don’t have enough to keep taking them out.”
Last month, there was a period of two weeks when the family did not leave the area around the hotel because they had no money for transport or activities.
Sarah’s closest friends live in Balbriggan, more than an hour from where she is based. She does laundry and cooks food at their houses when she can because she does not have these facilities in the hotel and says staying at a friend’s house for a night or two is “like a holiday” for the family.
Despite the struggle some families face, homeless charities say there are some supports in place to help during the summer period.
The Department of Children has a scheme which entitles all children in homeless accommodation to 25 hours of free childcare per week, and charities, such as Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust, provide vouchers for activity centres and summer camps.
However, Rachel Morgan, a team leader with Focus Ireland, says there needs to be more support and funds made available to homeless families trying to entertain children during out-of-term periods.
“Financially, it can be quite a burden for families during the summer, regardless if they’re in or out of homeless but if you’re homeless, you want to get out of the facility during the day so you’re going to the cinema, or facilities or summer camps or whatever, but they come at a cost.”
I really need a roof over my head because I can’t do anything. I need a place for myself and for my children
Sarah’s son has speech difficulties and takes his anger and frustration out on his siblings when they’re cramped up in one place for too long.
“He shouts, cries and is very, very angry because of his speech difficulty. When we’re at the house and he’s screaming and shouting, I can’t even give him a time out because we’re just in the one room. When they’re fighting, there is no way I can separate them from each other,” she said.
Sarah said the stress of trying to occupy her children, get a job and find a permanent home has had negative consequences for her health.
“The other day I had a miscarriage. I lost the baby. The baby died in my womb and I didn’t even know until I went to the hospital. It’s because it’s so stressful,” she adds. “I really need a roof over my head because I can’t do anything. I need a place for myself and for my children.”
Her two daughters are returning to school on Friday and Sarah said the end of the summer break is a relief for her and her children.
“They’re so excited because they haven’t been able to see their friends since school finished,” Sarah says. “They love going outside and don’t like being stuck in the same place for too long , so they’re just so excited to get back to school.”
“It’s a relief for me, too. It means I can go to appointments or do shopping without having to bring them with me. It will be much easier.”