Friday 24 May 2019

Homeless parents forced to choose between food and travel so children can remain in original school

Leaving Cert students (stock image)
Leaving Cert students (stock image)
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Parents of homeless children are choosing between buying food or paying travel costs so they can stay in school in their original community.

It is among a grim litany of suffering  and loss being faced by children caught up in the current homelessness crisis, according  to a report out today.

The Children’s Rights Alliance  report examines  the  impact of homelessness and living in emergency accommodation  on children, with a  particular  focus on how it was affecting their education.

Figures for May show that there were almost  10,000 people homeless in Ireland, including  almost 4,000 children living in emergency accommodation.

The  findings of the study highlight how, in many cases,  basic needs, such as adequate food and rest,  are not being met, and  without that, children  cannot meaningfully engage and participate in education and learning.

The study, the first of its kind, is based on research among teachers, school principals  and  homeless parents in the greater Dublin  area, conducted by Grainne McKenna and Dr Geraldine Scanlon of Dublin City University’s Institute of Education.

It was supported by The Community Foundation for Ireland, the  Tomar Trust charity,  the social inclusion agency,  Pobal ,and the Department of Rural and Community Development.

The study paints a distressing picture of  children going to school  hungry and  in dirty clothes  because of the limitations of their accommodation,  sometimes having to  rise at 5.30am to make a long  journey across the city  and  then falling asleep in class.

The children featured in the report experienced frequent school absences attributed to poor diet, inadequate rest and poor living conditions.

The parents surveyed described how infections – including chicken pox, ear infections and head lice – were common, and difficult to treat and manage while living in overcrowded and confined accommodation.

The  report gives examples of parents sacrificing food  to  pay for travel costs to school, or vice versa.

At the  time  the research  was being conducted  last year,  families said they had been told of potential  support for school transport, but  none had received travel cards or financial assistance  with school transport costs, the report states.

Getting to school and through the school day is only part of the educational challenge, with the limitations of  emergency accommodation a poor environment  for a child to engage in homework and play.

Children’s Rights Alliance chief executive Tanya Ward  said  “a good home forms the essential basis that prepares a child to go to school, to learn and to thrive.  Emergency accommodation does not provide this foundation, despite the huge efforts of schools and parents.”

She said children who were homeless lost out on every level because they had no home to provide them with the backdrop that they needed to learn and grow relationships.

“When children are denied their right to education, they lose the chance to develop to their fullest potential.  This loss can extend across their lifespan, impacting on their health, wellbeing, social relationships and occupational success.

Ms Ward pointed  to “important lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina in the US some years ago”, when it was found that school played a vital role in supporting children through the distress of homelessness.

According to the report, at a time of homelessness,  the function of the school changes from being a place of learning to a place of safety, routine and predictability but poor attendance and living away from school  impacted on academic achievement and social relationships.

“What our report finds is that schools are a beacon of hope for families and a place of sanctuary for children. They provide a stability and consistency that is otherwise absent in a child’s life.

It  calls for a range of  supports , including free travel to school   and ring-fenced funding for schools  to allow them to provide extras such as meals, psychological assessments  and homework clubs.

Other recommendations  in the report include  ensuring   that homeless families with children were supported in accessing appropriate accommodation, that is  also close to their school or childcare service

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