Residents say Traveller housing scheme unfit for habitation

Family of 11, driven to live in cramped caravans, claims damp making children sick

Kathleen and Patrick Sherlock with their children (from left) Edward, Patrick, Michael, Martin, Jim, Mary-Ellen, John and Stacey. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Kathleen and Patrick Sherlock with their children (from left) Edward, Patrick, Michael, Martin, Jim, Mary-Ellen, John and Stacey. Photograph: Eamon Ward

 

Eight people sleep in the 16ft caravan owned by Kathleen and Patrick Sherlock, in Ennistymon, Co Clare.

Their eldest daughter Kathleen-Marie (20), who has scoliosis, sleeps on a top bunk, while Stacey (8) and Mary-Ellen (12), who has a heart-murmur, share the bunk below. John (14), who has severe asthma, sleeps on the floor alongside Jim (9).

“Myself and my husband, and Martin (7) shares this bed,” says Kathleen, pointing to a double sofa-bed at the end of the van.

Their three eldest sons – Michael (21), Edward (18) and Patrick (17) – sleep in an adjacent caravan.

The family have lived at St John’s Traveller housing scheme, Deerpark, on a hill near Ennistymon, since 2003, when the six-house scheme was built by Clare County Council at a cost of €1.7 million.

Rising damp

In the hall, wallpaper is falling from the walls. Skirting boards are wet and rotting, while paintwork throughout is blistering and flaking.

In the bedrooms, rising damp extends four feet up the walls while the ceilings are scarred with mildew. The wardrobes have rising damp inside. Window sills are spotted with mould.

In the livingroom a stain on the ceiling around the central light fitting shows where, says Kathleen, water used to leak down around the light causing the fuse board to trip.

“The house has always been cold and damp. We spent a fortune over the years trying to keep it clean and warm, and asking the council to come and do something. They put in a stove two years ago and that helped, but the damp is everywhere and it was making the children sick, especially John.”

They show letters they have written to the council since 2009, complaining about mould and the impact on their children’s health.

In a neighbour’s house, 20 people share one toilet. A portaloo has also been provided, but Caroline Loughnane, head of the household says it’s too cold at night for the children. Some 11 people sleep in the house and nine in two adjacent caravans. This house, which was warm and heated when visited last week, also has black mildew across the ceilings and rising damp. Wallpaper put up three months ago is peeling.

Kathleen and Patrick say they withheld rent on occasion over the years, in the hope the council would address the damp issues. They left the scheme in May, citing overcrowding and tension with another family on the site, which they had reported to gardaí, hoping this would increase pressure on the council to address their issues.

They stayed in their caravan by Cregg beach, Lahinch for a time, but high winds forced them to move to a roadside nearby. “People kept driving past, telling us they’d burn us out. The children were terrified,” says Kathleen, The gardaí issued an eviction notice to leave, and they “had to come back here” last month.

The house was boarded up. A fortnight after they returned the council removed the shutters, allowing them to use the bathroom. The family now bring electricity, via extension leads plugged into a hall socket, out to the caravan.

Into the extension lead sockets are plugged a kettle, toaster, microwave, television, Sky box and lights. Food is stored under the bunks. Small cupboards are packed with clothes and bed linen.

The children, who attend Mol an Óige national school and Ennistymon Technical College struggle to complete homework in the conditions, while John has “missed about half his schooling” due to asthma attacks, says Kathleen. They excel, however, at sports and show trophies and medals won in track racing, football and boxing.

‘Perfect house’

“The council told us there was no right to an emergency mobile home,” says Kathleen. “They said we had a perfect house to go back into, but it’s no good for my children. All we want now is somewhere we can cook a Christmas dinner and sit down like any other family.”

Under section 27 of the 1998 Housing Act and section 24 of the Traveller Accommodation Act, local authorities are empowered to provide emergency accommodation, when it is “ urgent and necessary, having regard to personal health, public health and safety considerations, in order to provide a reasonable standard of accommodation for any person”.

Clare County Council said: “The house was constructed to a very high standard in 2003 in full accordance with departmental guidelines and considerable expense has been incurred since then in respect of various works in the house . The council . . . is satisfied that a dampness issue does not arise.

“The reference to dampness is not correct but relates more to excessive condensation arising from a number of factors including broken windows not repaired, obstruction of vents and general lack of heating by the occupants of the properties.”

Chair of the Clare County Council local Traveller accommodation consultative committee, Councillor Mike McKee, said houses he visited at St John’s Park were “full of damp”.

“The whole scheme needs to be knocked and built again from scratch, and to a standard that would be acceptable to anyone in the settled community,” he said.

“How can anyone expect children to grow up in these conditions, where they are getting sick and missing school, and then expect them to grow into fully participating members of society? All these people want is to look after their children and give them a future.”