Limit emergency accommodation for children to six months
We risk becoming desensitised to housing crisis as numbers of homeless climb
More than half of families experiencing homelessness in Dublin are currently housed in hotels and B&Bs. Photograph: iStock
Hundreds of thousands of children across the country are counting down the days to Christmas, eagerly awaiting the excitement of Christmas morning. But more than 3,000 children are facing a holiday shrouded in extreme uncertainty, Christmas cheer shadowed by the insecurity of homelessness.
While it’s a fun and joyful time of year for most, Christmas is also a difficult time for many. A time for pause and reflection which often brings into focus family difficulties and challenges. Every year we see parents who are dealing with many of life’s challenges going the extra mile to put on a brave face and make sure that Christmas will be one remembered fondly by their children. But for thousands of families across the country, this Christmas brings an extra challenge – one that cannot easily be forgotten, even for one day – living in emergency accommodation.
Life for a family in emergency accommodation is difficult. Eating, studying, sleeping, playing, dressing and clothes-drying all happen within the same small space. Children share beds with their siblings and often their parents. Families live out of suitcases, having given away or stored many of their belongings, never settling, always aware that they may have to move on.
Worry and distress
Being homeless takes a significant toll on a child’s health and development. They often experience anxiety as they fret over their future and see the strain on their parents who no doubt display signs of worry and distress. “I am keeping my kids positive but deep down I am falling apart,” one parent living in emergency accommodation told us. “I cried for the first two weeks in there, I sobbed my heart out in the bathroom, it makes you feel like a failure as a mother,” said another.
This time of year, more than any other, is focused on the coming together of family, the comfort and stability of home. We see it everywhere, on television, on billboards – images of warm, cosy living rooms, a sparkling tree with presents piled high, Santa Claus making his appearance while children are upstairs sleeping.
Children see it too, they’re sold it and, right or wrong, it forms an idea of what Christmas is. This year, for more than 3,000 children, this daily depiction of the ideal Christmas serves as a harsh reminder of their lack of a permanent home and their worry of whether Santa will know where to find them. This is a real concern also felt by thousands more children who are not in emergency accommodation but are also without a home. These are the hidden homeless – living with family or friends, often in overcrowded and inappropriate accommodation but not formally reported in homelessness statistics.
As the numbers of homeless adults, families and children rise month on month, the increase is almost expected, almost inevitable, and as a result less newsworthy. We are at risk of becoming desensitised to this crisis, to writing it off as an unpleasant side-effect of economic growth, explaining it away by assuming those experiencing homelessness have done something to deserve it, it is a result of their behaviour.
Paths to homelessness
But there are many paths to homelessness and with the current lack of affordable housing it is far too easy to end up on one of those paths. Many homeless families are simply unable to afford market rents which in some cases have increased by 90 per cent over the last six years.
We cannot allow the normalisation of homelessness; we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent in this crisis, because in doing so we are writing off the health, development and potential of more than 3,000 children.
More than half of families experiencing homelessness in Dublin are currently housed in hotels and B&Bs. This is outrageously inappropriate accommodation for children. While some family hubs offer a good alternative, they cannot become a long-term solution. Children need the consistency, safety and stability of their own home.
The Government must guarantee that no child spends more than six months in emergency accommodation – ensuring an appropriate long-term solution at the end of this period. That means providing social housing. Building of new social housing has been frustratingly slow in 2017. Without immense improvement in the number of completed social houses, the Government has no hope of alleviating this ever-worsening crisis.
June Tinsley is head of advocacy at Barnardos