‘My three year old asked are we going to have to stay in here forever?’

Families in accommodation hubs struggle amid Covid-19 clampdown conditions

It has been "very hard", says Jade Downey, to tell her autistic, non-verbal twin boys (4) they cannot go to school, use the playground or even go into the garden due to the threat of coronavirus.

Downey (30), her husband and four sons, aged 10 weeks to four years, have shared a room in the Mater Dei family hub in Drumcondra, Dublin, for just over a year.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak began, in accordance with Health Service Executive guidelines, the 50 families in the hub cannot use the playground, the sensory room, the television room or common room, and visitors are not allowed.

“It’s eerie,” says Downey. “The families are trying to keep the kids in the rooms but that’s very hard. The children, they’re really feeling it. I noticed this morning, it seemed like all the kids in the building were crying.


“My three year old turned around to me this morning and said: ‘Are we going to stay have to stay in here forever?’

“Every day he is asking, ‘Are we going back to school today?’ and I have to say, ‘No’.

“It’s breaking my heart because I know how much he misses his teachers. The other two are not coping well at all. We’re just trying to keep them busy. I have done all the art stuff. I have done play-doh, I’ve done Easter bonnets, cutting up crepe paper, colours,” she says.

Closed playgrounds

“I know this virus is bad for people stuck in houses, but at least there you have another room to walk away when it’s all getting too much.”

The Downeys are among 1,611 families, including 3,574 children, facing the coronavirus crisis in emergency accommodation. Of these, 1,201 families with 2,678 children are in Dublin.

Crosscare runs the Mater Dei hub on behalf of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. Other hub operators include Respond housing, which has five homeless services in Dublin and one in Limerick; and Cope Galway which operates one hub in Galway city. Focus Ireland's Homeless Action Team is working with families in nine hubs and 15 hotels across Dublin.

All are concerned about the impact of closed schools, playgrounds and outlets like cafes and cinemas, on already-isolated families.

“Our frontline staff are continuing to do all they can to help and support our service users during this time, even in small ways such as providing gift boxes on Mother’s Day,” says a Respond spokeswoman.

Niamh Lambe, family support manager with Focus Ireland, says partnership across statutory, private and NGO providers has been stepped up in the face of the crisis.

Hotels are now providing three meals a day to their homeless family residents while Focus Ireland’s family drop-in centre in Phibsboro is open 24 hours a day, providing takeaway meals and parcels of non-perishable foods.

Web counselling

“We are putting together activity packs which will be distributed to children and our child support workers are calling children. This is a very difficult time for teenagers,” she says. “ We are trialing Zoom and Skype counselling sessions from support workers for children where face-to-face contact would be better.”

There is some optimism more rental properties would become available to homeless families as the short-term letting market falls, says Lambe.

In Galway, the city and county councils are “fast-tracking” homeless families’ housing applications, says Martin O’Connor, assistant chief executive of Cope. Families in the hub there have been moved out to hotels and own-door accommodation as the building was needed to provide rooms for homeless adults to self-isolate.

Niamh Lee, Crosscare's family hub manager, says the families are "understanding" of the measures they have had to implement to stem the pandemic.

“We are sensitive to the fact that we need to mind our mental health during this time with the added stress of living in a family hub,” she says.

Kirsty Spencer (26) and her children (2 and 3) have been in the Mater Dei since April 2019. "This virus, it's stressful, especially because I am on my own and we're not allowed visitors. I can't bring them down to their nanny's or anything. She has asthma," says Spencer.

“I am worried what will happen. If I get sick who is going to mind my kids? I have to do it. It’s straining me now.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times