Elizabeth’s story: My childhood was ‘ripped away’

Elizabeth Akinwande, who is 15: ‘For seven months I shared a room with two families – my own and the rats.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

No Child 2020 is an editorial initiative by The Irish Times. Its purpose is to give voice to children, to explore the problems facing children in Ireland today and to offer solutions that would make this a better country to be a child. For more, see irishtimes.com/nochild2020

HERE, 15-YEAR-OLD ELIZABETH AKINWANDE WRITES ABOUT HER SEVEN MONTHS OF HOMELESSNESS. ‘BEING HOUSELESS MADE ME MATURE. I HAVEN’T FELT 15 FOR A WHILE NOW’

April 16th, 2018.

I remember it clear
and
Sorrow it deeply.

Emotions, thoughts and feelings.
Walls of stability.
Dimensions.

The day when I felt I had lost everything and the roof of my home.

I stained the confining walls of the B&B with my tears, it reeked of uncertainty and takeaway by the time night had fallen.

It always reeked of some sort of takeaway. And dull, really dull misery.

The floor was the only space I could get my homework done, joined by all the crawling insects hunting for food. I used to count and kill them too as they crawled all over my homework. They never seemed to stop. It filled me with envy as they had so much room and I just had one, one that I shared with my two brothers, two sisters and my mum.

Then, there were rodents; finding warmth in the place where I froze and unthawed, as the families I had grown attached to left.

Bereft.

I froze and unthawed.

I froze and unthawed when the family of five little girls that I had grown to love so deeply left without a goodbye, for reasons that were out of their control.

This was June. I had just sat my Junior Cert.

The loss that came with it was profound. Overwhelmed by all the sudden departures, I now knew I’d have to get used to it.
Until God knows when.

I froze and unthawed.

As opposed to the non-perishable food we got from Focus Ireland.
Their philanthropy, in the form of Pot Noodles, Rice Krispies and Leap Cards, brought me a glimpse of light in the midst of drudgery.

The gravity of the situation renders you powerless, lacking the resources to build yourself up again.

I was evicted from my physical home and the one I had built in my mind.

Because everything comes crashing down when you lose the walls of your house.

Not everyone is able to rebuild a home houseless.

Yet I could and built the walls of my home.
By God’s grace and telling my friends I just lived in Swords.
The embarrassment was too high for me to even mention where.
No apartments, estates or buildings, just Swords.
I had to, for the sake of the foundation of my home.
The shame would have restricted me from even trying to build up everything I had lost.
Just Swords.

There isn’t anything okay about losing your comfort, seven-eighths of your possessions, your dignity and your privacy.
I couldn’t hold my head high.
Who had heard my cries through the thin walls the night before?
I tried to brush it off like it was no big deal.
But I was houseless at 14 years old and spent my 15th birthday in the Citizen’s Information Centre with a tub of ice-cream instead of cake. As the mini-fridge in the B&B had no room.

There wasn’t room in the B&B for much of anything – a few bags each.
Every now and again, I’d ask the reception for a bin bag for my things when the last one had ripped.
A bin bag beside the fridge for rubbish, it was really just a restaurant for the rat family.

Imagine getting to eat out every day.

I spent most of my time away from the B&B during the summer. The scent of misery intensifies when you’re alone: the smell of stale cigarettes and canned meatballs.

I built my home outside, where it was the aroma of cherry blossoms and pasta in the sunshine.
Trips to town with my Leap Card and listening to the people who were visibly houseless. The ones on the streets, not like me, the one in the B&B.

Though I was 14 and 15, being houseless made me mature. I felt I was 23 – that way, my childhood hadn’t been ripped away.

I haven’t felt 15 for a while now.

So at 23, you can build a home, and in the home that I was building inside my heart, I filled it with hope, faith, trust, patience, love and co-operation.

Those are the things that I had developed and learnt over the seven months while breathing in notes of hope and uncertainty, the faint air of takeaway, sharing a room with two families – my own and the rats – and 9am breakfasts with eggs and baked beans, the bad apple juice and occasionally the good apple juice.

It could have been longer than seven months. It could have been a year or maybe two.
But we were only numbers in a system, relying on public housing departments to get the ball rolling in our court.
12,390
620
152
35.

But it was only seven months, and God knew then.

Seven months of taking our washing to people’s houses (but not underwear because that’s rude).
Seven months of homework on the floor and focused optimism.
Seven months of interrupted me-time in a shared bathroom. A family in a mirror, a partition dividing the same image to reflect ourselves. A pitiful picture staring back, leaving us to realise the effect all this had on our family.
All taking separate hits.
and
Seven months of drinking in warped images.
Seven months of dinner with church members. Not just from pity but because Isaiah 58:7 says: “Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from your relatives who need help.”

So sometimes I didn’t feel houseless because I knew I had a home with Christ. Then it was okay because even though I was houseless, there was already a home built for me & the one I was building for myself.

It was only seven short months in the course of my development.
In the shaping of my personality.
The little sweet things that make me who I am are the experiences that formed me.
Made me better even, more grateful.
and
Taught me how to build a house and fill it with all the things that make a house a home.
Faith, love, trust, patience and co-operation.

and

So I built a home, houseless.

Elizabeth Akinwande, who is 15, wrote this for Fighting Words and The Irish Times No Child 2020 project. Elizabeth was born in Galway to Nigerian parents and grew up in north Dublin. She lives in Lusk with her mother, two brothers and two sisters, and is a fifth-year student atin Donabate Community College. She wrote a story called Library Halls for Fighting Words in 2017, aged 13. Elizabeth hopes to go to college after her Leaving Cert. She also hopes to keep writing, and to “help people with the things I’m writing”.

A support worker responds

The piece of writing is “powerful, emotive and hugely reflective” of the experiences Orla Cahill, a support worker with Focus Ireland, sees among the homeless children she works with.

“It describes the experiences of loss, the lack of space, the lack of privacy, the shame and the impact these experiences have on the development and confidence in a child.”

Cahill works with children in the initial weeks and months after they have left homelessness – supporting their transition out of emergency accommodation – and so can speak not only about the trauma of becoming and being homeless, but also about the longer-term impact.

She gave her reaction to the piece as the latest homelessness figures, published on Wednesday, show there were 3,794 children in emergency accommodation in the week between April 22nd and 28th.

Cahill is struck by Elizabeth’s describing how being homeless made her “mature”; that she felt she was no longer a teenager but 23, and, that in this way she can believe she isn’t losing her childhood.

Children can take on a maturity they shouldn’t have to, almost a parenting role, trying to find solutions and take on some of the stresses they see their parents having to

“Older children especially can take on a maturity they shouldn’t have to, almost a parenting role, trying to find solutions and take on some of the stresses they see their parents having to.

“The piece describes so powerfully the lack of space, doing the homework on the floor. Then the things children shouldn’t have to think about – like where their food is coming from, or where they do their laundry and the shame about that.

“And it’s not just the physical things, but the huge loss of place – being removed from communities, perhaps having to move school, leave sports clubs, lose friends, the ability to have friends over, have family to visit.

“The loss of dignity, loss of even a sense of self, and shame, are captured when she describes not being able to say exactly where she’s from – that she’s ‘just a person from Swords now’.”

While exiting homelessness into a home should be a wholly positive move, it can bring its own difficulties for children.

“Whatever kind of routine they had developed amid the chaos of homelessness, it has to be disrupted again. And while it is great and the children are happy, they often have huge anxiety that they could lose it all again. Their sense of security is damaged and that has to be rebuilt.

“We do a lot of work helping them process these feelings of anxiety and work through that whether through activities, days out – whatever the child needs.” In some cases children may have to access more intensive counselling supports.

Cahill’s work is also to support families with the practicalities of integrating into the communities, local schools and clubs after homelessness.

We don’t know what the future holds for these children. The depression, anxiety – is that going to carry on into adulthood?

She agrees younger children tend to adjust back into life after homelessness more easily than the older ones, such as Elizabeth, who have often been more affected emotionally.

“Every child is different, and it depends on how long they have been homeless and how resilient they are generally and whether they have had good supports.

“We know there are immediate and medium-term impacts on children. But the long-term, life-long impacts – that’s very concerning. We don’t know what the future holds for these children. The depression, anxiety – is that going to carry on into adulthood?”

It can be “very difficult” for these children to access mental health services, she says, as their difficulties are described as “environmental” rather than innate mental health issues.

Cahill would like to see the particular impact of homelessness on children’s mental health recognised as a growing issue requiring a health service response. – Kitty Holland Social Affairs Correspondent