There has been a sharp rise in the number of homeless children reported to the State child-protection watchdog Tusla over concerns for their welfare and safety.
The problem of homeless families unable to secure emergency accommodation being forced to sleep rough in cars or Garda stations has "deteriorated" recently, according to correspondence between Focus Ireland and Minister for Children Katherine Zappone.
The number of child-protection reports made to Tusla, the child and family agency, by family homeless charity Focus Ireland has more than doubled in recent months.
Last November, Focus Ireland staff made 26 reports to Tusla over concerns for the welfare of homeless children they were dealing with. In the first three weeks of April the charity reported 48 cases of child-protection concern.
In a letter on April 30th to the Minister, Focus chief executive Pat Dennigan said the family homelessness situation "has deteriorated over the last few weeks". The correspondence, including the figures on child welfare reports, was obtained by The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act.
In the first three weeks of April, 32 families were told to present themselves to Garda stations, as no emergency accommodation beds were available, Mr Dennigan told Ms Zappone. “Of these, 12 families (20 children) reported to us the following day they had slept rough, mostly in cars,” he said.
Nine families could not be provided with beds one night on April 24th, and several of them had to sleep in Pearse Street Garda station, the letter said.
Child welfare reports are made to Tusla in cases where there is a potential risk to the safety of a child. Focus Ireland said staff were making the statutory reports due to the children’s lack of safe accommodation, and not because of any negligence or mistreatment by their parents.
“We believe that using this formal process should have triggered action from a range of actors necessary to solve the problem. However, at this point we do not believe that this is happening and we fear that the current dangerous practices will continue until some worse event occurs,” Mr Dennigan said.
Focus Ireland raised the problem with the Department of Housing and Tusla, and at a round-table meeting of homeless charities convened by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in April, the letter said. "Nevertheless, the problem persists and our staff are aware of children being put at risk almost on a nightly basis," Mr Dennigan wrote.
Families who secured emergency beds were in many cases also at “serious risk” on the streets until late at night, the letter said.
Mr Dennigan said the charity was considering publishing the number of families forced to report to Garda stations at night each month on its website. “Our board has repeatedly expressed grave concern for the families in this position and also that our services are being caught in an unacceptable position by the failure of the wider system,” he said.
Responding to the letter on May 15th, Ms Zappone said she had been engaging with homeless charities to “mitigate against some of the extreme consequences on children whose families are homeless”. During a visit to a day service Focus run for homeless families Ms Zappone said she had “intervened directly (and successfully)” in an individual case.
Following the correspondence, Mike Allen, head of advocacy at Focus, told The Irish Times the Dublin Region Homeless Executive had increased the number of family emergency accommodation beds. Tusla also began funding an evening "coffee shop" service run by Focus, for homeless families unsure of where they would be accommodated until late at night.
Mr Allen said while the situation had improved, and the numbers of families forced to present to Garda stations for shelter had dropped, the charity was still dealing with concerning reports of families sleeping rough in cars.
Latest figures from the Department of Housing recorded 9,872 people as homeless in June, of whom 3,824 were children.