Homeless children who have difficulty swallowing and chewing solid food because of their poor diet are turning up at emergency accommodation, according to a homeless service organisation.
Novas said it noticed the problem occurring in children who had lived for prolonged periods in hotel rooms with no access to cooking facilities.
It said homeless children presenting at its “family hub” services had underdeveloped swallow reflex and problems chewing solid food, believed to be associated with a prolonged diet of non-perishable puréed food.
“In hotels, families have no access to cooking, refrigeration or (food) storage facilities, so they cannot cook or prepare lunches, and that’s really debilitating, and, it is de-skilling parents and knocking their confidence,” said Una Burns, Novas head of policy and communications.
“We have children presenting in our hubs who have lived in hotels previously and they are struggling to chew and swallow, because mums and dads haven’t been able to prepare proper food when they're living in hotels, so the children are still on puréed food in pouches, at two and three years of age, because it doesn't perish the same way fresh food does.
“So, their swallow reflexes haven’t developed.”
Novas said other “basic developmental milestones are being missed” in children who have been living for long periods in emergency accommodation.
Ms Burns said there was ittle space to move around in this type of accommodation and “children are finding it difficult to learn to crawl and learn to walk”.
These are “things that we wouldn't associate with homelessness”, Ms Burns added.
She said children were suffering “emotional challenges” due to “having the insecurity and anxiety of not knowing where they are going to sleep from night to night”.
“There is no targeted mental health interventions for children who are living in high-stress congregated settings - whether that's a hub, or direct provision, or a domestic violence (shelter).”
At the launch of its annual report for 2018, Novas said it had for the first time supported over 1,000 children who were homeless or at risk, as well as providing 110 tenancies nationwide.
Ms Burns said Novas has sought funds through Pobal, the Government social supports agency, “to develop play and creative therapies” at its family hub in Ennis, which opened last June providing supports for five families.
“We want to try and develop a template that might be used nationally to support children in their mental health, in their physical development, and their ability to express the anxieties that they experience from these high-stress congregated settings,” she said.
It also runs a hub in Dublin that caters for up to 11 families.
“We try to keep them small, because small hubs mirror more closely a homelike environment; there’s less conflict between families; it’s easier to support families; and it's easier for them to live independently.”