Homeless children expressing suicidal and self-harming thoughts, and hundreds more experiencing “deep trauma”, have no child-support services, a senior homeless expert has warned.
The mental health of their parents is now of serious concern, too, warned Niamh Lambe, manager of Focus Ireland's family support team, at the launch of a report into young families' experience of homelessness.
More than 200 children are waiting months to speak with child support workers, she said, following the publication of Young Families in the Homeless Crisis.
The report found that up to a quarter of homeless families are headed by parents between 18 and 24 years of age.
“There are children who will never have a child support worker . . . every child experiencing homelessness should have a child support worker. These children are in trauma.
“I don’t think we can overestimate what it’s like for these families that are moving from place to place. There are stories of little toddlers walking around the streets in the daytime, looking for somewhere to eat, somewhere to go.”
Noting that Focus Ireland has "to pick the children that are the most in trauma rather than every child", Lambe said the organisation has five child support workers in 21 family hubs and emergency centres in Dublin and Cork.
Seven more work with children after an end to homelessness, using crafts, and the development of coping skills, along with help and advice for parents, many of whom are very young themselves.
Family “hubs” are congregated centres where homeless families are accommodated, with communal cooking, laundry and eating facilities. They continue to be built and acquired by local authorities as an alternative to hotels and B&Bs.
Ms Lambe said the impact of homelessness was “a child welfare issue”.
“There needs to be a lot more done by mental health services. If there’s social worker involvement, referrals can be made. We do deal with suicidal ideation from parents and we are also seeing suicidal ideation among some children and self-harming and we have child protection notifications that go into Tusla around that.”
Dr Sharon Lambert, lead author of the report, described the pressures on some parents. She had recently met the mother of a severely autistic boy aged "about seven". The family was "self-accommodating" and had to find a hotel or B&B accommodation for three to five nights at a time.
“Anyone who knows anything about autism knows structure and routine are extremely important to wellbeing. What [the mother] has to do with her son when they find a new hotel room is she gets him to walk in backwards into the room so that he can slowly take in the environment.
“But he will still spend 24 hours banging his head against the wall because of the stress that’s involved.”
Mike Allen, director of advocacy, said Focus Ireland was "very worried" about the mental health of homeless families. He said each one should have a case worker and every homeless child should have a child support worker.