No Child 2020 is an Irish Times initiative to provide a sustained focus on child welfare and children's issues in 2019. Inspired by the Democratic Programme issued by the first Dáil a century ago, it explores the problems facing children in Ireland today and offers solutions that would make this a better country to be a child in. The project concludes today. You can read the full series here
Sarah and Martin Stokes and their eight children are preparing for their fourth homeless Christmas, their third in a "family hub" in Tallaght, Dublin.
For Kirsty Spencer and her two infants, who have been homeless for 13 months, it will be their first Christmas in a family hub – in Drumcondra, Dublin.
Louise O'Leary, her partner Alex McSweeney and their three young children have been in a hub in Cork city since June.
Theirs are among a growing number of children now living in purpose-built or adapted co-living centres for homeless families known as family hubs. Whether in former colleges, convents or furniture showrooms, hubs are presented by Government as “more suitable” for homeless families than commercial hotels and B&Bs and are emerging as a long-term Government policy for accommodating them.
Hubs may have curfews. Some do not allow visitors – even next of kin or babysitters. Often they don't permit families or allow children to visit each other's rooms
Since the first hub was established in a former Magdalene laundry in High Park, Drumcondra, in March 2017 a further 30 have opened. Contracts are being signed with providers for five years and more, and more hubs are planned. There are now 24 in Dublin, two in Limerick and one each in Cork city; Galway city; Drogheda, Co Louth; Athy, Co Kildare; and, Ennis, Co Clare.
Unlike hotels and B&Bs, hubs provide cooking and laundry facilities, on-site support workers and in some cases play and homework facilities for children. However, also unlike commercial hotels, hubs may have curfews. Some do not allow visitors – even next of kin or babysitters. Often they don’t permit families or allow children to visit each other’s rooms. Most have strict rules about staying out overnight – even to visit family, and some do not permit parents to have a beer or glass of wine in their room in the evening.
Most are operated by charities, though seven in Dublin are privately run. And hubs can be big business. From January to the end of September, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) paid these seven €9.5 million to provide 331 family spaces.
In all, the DRHE paid €16 million to hub operators between January and September this year, for 584 family spaces. Since 2017, it has paid €3.5 million in Dublin, and some €3.5 million outside the capital.
And though the commitment of those working with the families in hubs is not in doubt, the hub system as a long-term response to family homelessness has been described by Dr Mary Murphy of the school of social sciences in Maynooth University as "therapeutic incarceration".She says: "These types of policy responses to the housing problem are at risk of recreating institutions like mother and baby homes, where being poor and a mother, or the child of a poor mother, is problematised, rather than supported."
The latest data indicate there were 3,826 children in 1,733 families homeless in October. Of these about 650 families are in hubs
Hub operators reject the comparison with mother and baby homes. A spokesman for Crosscare, which operates the Mater Dei in Drumcondra Dublin says: “While the hubs are not something Ireland can be proud of, it has found itself needing them as a response to a housing crisis ... to support families in a time of crisis to avoid being in hotels or less stable or suitable accommodation.
“I can only speak for our Hub but a lot of thought, effort and care goes into trying to minimise the impact of this crisis on the families and get them moved on as soon as possible”.
Nevertheless, Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon in April documented the trauma, anger, shame and sadness among children in hubs in his report, No Place Like Home. He remains "extremely concerned about the impact that...living in family hubs is having on children".
Based on complaints his office is receiving, he says: “It appears that very little has changed.” The latest data indicate there were 3,826 children in 1,733 families homeless in October. Of these about 650 families are in hubs.
As The Irish Times No Child 2020 initiative draws to a close, we talk to three families about their children’s lives in hubs and their view of their future. Their situations are a stark reminder that – despite some progress on child welfare issues this year – the plight of children in today’s Ireland remains a major issue.
KIRSTY AND CHILDREN
Kirsty Spencer, who is 26, and her children, who are one and two, have been in the Mater Dei hub on Clonliffe Road, Drumcondra, since April. Operating in a converted college, it provides 50 family spaces. Since 2017 to the end of September 2019 the DRHE has paid Crosscare €3,956,920 to run it.
“Walking up to the hub the first time, it was very scary, very daunting . . . Someone showed me the room and told me what there was – a canteen that provides food, playrooms, sensory rooms and a small playground. We have a room with a double bed and cot, with a bathroom and sofa. It was scary the first night when I realised, ‘This is where we live now’.
“There are 50 families and it is stressful.At night, there’s always some noise in the background, from neighbours and upstairs. One thing I really miss is being able to shut your front door and be in peace, safe at home. You don’t have that in a hub.
“There is no curfew, but the staff check in the evenings that you’re in the room. There’s no real privacy for us as a family.
I feel sometimes like the staff control my life. If you want to stay out overnight you have to tell them. When you walk out in the morning there's a staff member there, and if you're not in the humour you still have to be smiling
“I feel sometimes like they [staff] control my life. If you want to stay out overnight you have to tell them. When you walk out in the morning there’s a staff member there, and if you’re not in the humour you still have to be smiling, say, ‘Hello’ . . . They do help sometimes and a lot are mothers themselves so they do understand.
“My son, he’s two. Someone asked him a few weeks ago where he lived and he said: ‘I live in the room’. There’s a little house near the hub and every time we pass it he says: ‘I’m getting that off Santy’. When we go to other people’s houses and we’re leaving, my son is crying, ‘Not go to room. Not go to room’. He knows he doesn’t want to go back there. They hate it. It’s very upsetting.
“I’ve been on the council housing list for six years. All I’m being told is look for HAP [Housing Assistance Payment – supported house in private rented sector], that I’ll be in the hub until I find HAP. I haven’t been successful so far.
“My doctor has me on anti-depressants because I am finding it hard to deal with being homeless. I never felt like this in my life. It’s just hard to accept because you don’t see any light at the end of it. The other mothers do feel it too. They’re miserable walking around, the kids are miserable. The hub, it’s a very sad place.
I get that hubs are better than hotels, but not for this long. I am sad all the time; I feel like I am failing as a mother though I know it's the State that's failing us. But I do blame myself
“I get that hubs are better than hotels, but not for this long. You go in on yourself and get depressed and wondering when is it going to end. I am sad all the time; I feel like I am failing as a mother though I know it’s the State that’s failing us. But I do blame myself...
“I’d like to become a legal secretary. I was looking into a course, and then all this happened and I sort of forgot about it. You kind of forget about yourself and who you are as a person because now I am just a homeless mother.”
A spokesman for the Mater Dei hub says they allow visitors until 8pm. There is no curfew but residents are expected to be back at a “reasonable” hour. They may stay out overnight but must tell staff.
Is it a “sad place” as Kirsty describes it? “If you are in the space where a hub is a service you need there is no doubt you can be sad at times,” the spokesman says. “For many its been a very positive support, and has even been difficult to leave for some.”
THE STOKES FAMILY
Sarah and Martin Stokes and their eight children, aged 18, 17, 13, 10, eight, five, three and one, have been in the Abberley hub in Tallaght for two and a half years. The former hotel is privately run, has space for 51 families and has been paid €5,455,759 since it opened in 2017, to the end of September 2019.
“We were told we would be in the hub 18 months and we’re still here. It will be our fourth Christmas homeless. We have three rooms but we’re all on top of one another. There are cooking facilities in the hub but there are too many families using it. There’s over 50 families using the three cookers. There’s too much in it. Too much infections going around the hotel so I don’t use the kitchen,” says Sarah. “We have a microwave and a fridge so it’s all mostly take-aways.
“The kids don’t like the hub because they are making friends and then [the friends] are getting houses and they go . . .
“They all ask when are we getting a house and we say, ‘We’re looking for one’. It’s all we can say to them, that we’re getting one soon.
They all ask when are we getting a house and we say, 'We're looking for one'. It's all we can say to them. We feel guilty and heartbroken not to have a proper answer to give our kids
“Thomas [three] should be walking around but he’s not. The room is too confined.
“It makes them very, very down. We feel guilty and heartbroken that we don’t have a proper answer to give to our kids. The older ones do be embarrassed to say where they are, even in school . . .
“The thing is, we need a four-bedroom house and all the council say is they haven’t got any. Every time you ring the council to be honest they [sound] a bit sarcastic with us... They just keep saying they’ll get back to us.
"On Christmas Day we'll go to family around Clondalkin. It's not the same because we'd like to have our own house and have our own family dinner. We'd love to be in our own house next year."
Abberley does not allow visitors or alcohol. Residents can stay out overnight but must tell staff. The hub confirms that there are three cooking areas but says it also provides hot meals in a dining area to families who prefer this option.
LOUISE, ALEX AND CHILDREN
Louise O'Leary, her partner Alex McSweeney and their children – a daughter aged three, and twins age 20 months, have been in the Redclyff hub in Cork since June. Operated by Good Shepherd Cork in a former hostel, it opened in June 2018 providing 15-
17 family spaces at a cost of about €450,000 a year. A second hub is planned by Cork City Council.
Louise, Alex and their children had been in B&Bs for four months previously, having lost their private rented accommodation. “It was horrible walking in the first day,” says Louise. “Alex was pushing the buggy and it felt very clinical, like a hospital. We have connecting rooms. I’m in one, in a double bed with Aoife. Alex is in a single bed in the other room with the twins.
Downstairs there's a shared kitchen, laundry and livingroom. I don't like that, having to be with other people when I'm doing things like cooking or laundry
“Downstairs there’s a shared kitchen, laundry and livingroom. I don’t like that, having to be with other people when I’m doing things like cooking or laundry. I am quiet and like to keep to myself, so Alex does a lot of the cooking.
“The boys aren’t in great form, and Aoife is saying, ‘When are we going home?’
“They’re always sick, waking with chest infections. The kids hate it. Aoife is in pre-school and she had been toilet trained. Now she’s back in nappies. Like she has gone backwards since we were here.
“You hear fights going on in other rooms. We stay in the room mostly. Sometimes you feel you’re being watched by staff, being judged. It’s horrible feeling like this. My self-esteem is gone. I can’t even look at myself in the mirror. I don’t even want to go out and socialise.
“We have to be in the hub by 10pm so I could stay out later but I’d have to stay at a friend’s if I wanted to. You can’t drink either, and I like a glass of wine to unwind on a Friday evening. It’s not allowed and that’s frustrating.
Redclyff says it allows visitors until 9pm in designated visitor rooms. Residents may stay out overnight if they tell staff. Alcohol is disallowed “for safety purposes”.
"We are looking and looking for a house with HAP," says Louise, "but the rents are about €1,400 or €1,500, and the most we can get on HAP is €1,140. Some days I don't even want to get out of bed. If I didn't have Alex I think I would have had a nervous breakdown."