Saturday 24 August 2019

'We have done nothing wrong': A day in the life of a homeless family

As a single parent and non-Irish national, Irina Fiodorova falls into two top-risk categories for homelessness. Catherine Healy finds out how she and her family coped after falling through the housing cracks

Life in a family hub: Irina Fiodorova with her children Irina (12), Octavian (10) and Bogdan (5) in Dublin. Picture: Arthur Carron
Life in a family hub: Irina Fiodorova with her children Irina (12), Octavian (10) and Bogdan (5) in Dublin. Picture: Arthur Carron

Cycling along by Dublin port one bright afternoon, Irina Fiodorova and her three kids stopped to peer over the bay. The big period houses dotted across the seafront ahead of them could just about be made out. "There are happy people there," Irina remembers saying at the time. "Imagine, they look out their windows and see all these nice views." Little did she know her own family would end up living close by months later, in quite different circumstances.

For the last 28 months, Irina (37) and her two sons and daughter have shared a room in a homeless family hub on the north Dublin coast. When they moved in, she told the kids to focus on what was beyond the window rather than what lay inside. The sea views were one small mercy as they struggled to adapt to life in cramped conditions.

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Irina (12), Octavian (10) and Bogdan (5) are among 3,794 children residing in emergency accommodation nationwide, as per the latest figures from the Department of Housing. A total of 1,729 families were recorded as being without homes this past April, compared to 504 over the same period in 2015.

Research by Focus Ireland has shown that this stark increase in family homelessness is being largely driven by the crisis in the private rental market. Like Irina and her three kids, 68pc of homeless families had rented their last stable home, according to a new report by the charity, and more than half of these had become homeless as a result of their landlord taking the property out of the market. The study also found that lone parents, migrants and members of the Travelling community face a disproportionate risk of family homelessness: 56pc of homeless families are originally from outside Ireland, and 58pc are one-parent families.

Irina, who is Moldovan, moved here with her two eldest children nearly six years ago after her husband got a job in Limerick. She left for Dublin a few months later following the break-up of the marriage.

With a newborn son and little to no money to her name, Irina was temporarily moved into a room belonging to the Romanian Orthodox Church by a priest known to the family. "I knew nobody," she says, "so I called the priest who baptised Bogdan and he sent a car to us from Dublin."

Irina Fiodorova with her children. Photo by Arthur Carron
Irina Fiodorova with her children. Photo by Arthur Carron

Shortly after their arrival, Irina took on shifts with a contract cleaning company, working evenings at DIT, and later through the night at St James's Hospital. The kids were minded by others living in the church-run facility. After a year there and two months at an emergency shelter, Irina found private rented accommodation on the North Circular Road in Dublin 7 - a two-bed flat for which she was able to get rent allowance. The support was much needed after a change in her visa status meant she needed to give up work.

Family life seemed to have finally stabilised until one night in February 2017, when a fire ripped through their building. All four were evacuated unharmed but the flat was destroyed, and it soon became clear that they wouldn't be able to return. Having no friends or family in the community, Irina was taken along with the kids to the nearby Capuchin Day Centre, where she remembers staff being "very helpful". The family went the following day to Dublin City Council's Central Placement Service at Parkgate Hall. Irina was offered a short-term stay in emergency accommodation in the north inner city, where they stayed for two nights in a room of bunk beds. She and the kids were then moved to the property in which they now live, which at the time was still operating as a hotel. Irina remembers being kept awake by live music from its restaurant and bar on weekends.

Without a cooker or washing machine on hand, she was given permission to use the facilities at her kids' after-school centre. Once the building had quietened down after 5pm, she would cook and do laundry before heading back to the coast by bus. Wet clothes were hung out on radiators when they finally arrived home, often in the dark. On other evenings, the kids ate and finished homework in bed.

The hotel was eventually converted into a family hub, giving families access to a kitchen and children's room, as well as a small play area outside. The Irish Independent was refused permission by management to enter the building, but photos provided by Irina show her own room to be small and neat, with three beds and a number of standalone cabinets.

One storage unit is given over to books, another to clothes and two more to kitchenware and dry foods - jam, cereal, biscuits, pasta, spices and tea bags. The kids' stuffed toys are tidily lined up along the top and sides of their beds. A painting by their mother sits against a window sill, showing the family of four holding hands and looking out at the sea, a rainbow in the distance.

Long trek to school

The day starts early during school term. By 7.20am, everybody is out of the room and hurrying to get to a bus stop down the road. On a recent Tuesday, with this reporter in tow, the family just about makes the first of two buses to be taken that morning. Five-year-old Bogdan still finds time to nip into a small area of trees behind the stop, gathering sticks to place on top of one another. "He's always trying to build things," laughs Irina.

The family sits together on the back row of the bus - a daily ritual when space allows - with the younger Irina taking out a novel assigned to be read for class. There are no other schoolkids on the bus at this stage - most of the passengers look like they're heading into work in town. We get off in the city centre 20 minutes later and walk about 10 minutes to the following stop, Bogdan sitting up on his mother's shoulders to quicken our pace. The next bus takes 15 minutes or so to arrive around the corner from the kids' school, where breakfast club begins at 8.30am. Irina is in sixth class, Octavian in fourth, and Bogdan in junior infants.

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy

As the second bus crawls through rush-hour traffic, Irina hands me the kids' report cards, showing perfect attendance. Octavian was named pupil of the year this year, she says, and Irina received the same award the year before. After drop-off, Irina heads to work at the premises of a local women's education and training programme, which she cleans from 9am to 1pm before picking up Bogdan.

The CE scheme job was made possible after she was finally reapproved for a Stamp 4 visa. Not having had time before to return to the family hub during school time, she had grown used to walking the streets "like a real homeless person". But one day she attended a session in this particular centre and enquired as to whether they might be able to take her on. The answer was yes. "It was a relief," she says now. "I need to have things to do, you know? It's bad for you when you don't have work."

The job has taken some adjustment, though. Irina studied international law followed by accounting back at home before working in the travel industry, beginning in sales and ending up in management. "And then when I came here, I was down, down, down," she sighs. The hope is for her to be able to pursue further education in Ireland once she's reached the necessary English language requirements.

The children have faced their own challenges since moving to the hub. Lack of space is a constant frustration, as is the distance from friends. Residents must keep to strict rules, including a 10pm curfew and ban on visitors. Noise also has to be kept to a minimum: some families have moved in only to be transferred after a few weeks because of commotion, according to Irina.

On top of everything else, Octavian and the younger Irina are both waiting for hip replacements, having been born with dysplasia. Octavian has hearing problems and dyslexia, too. The two eldest siblings also suffered a degree of trauma after the fire; Bogdan was too young at the time to understand what was happening, Irina says.

Mike Allen, Director of Advocacy, Communications and Research at Focus Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers
Mike Allen, Director of Advocacy, Communications and Research at Focus Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers

The last few years have been constructive in their own way, though: "I think it has made them stronger," Irina explains. "They understand that sometimes you have bad times, and sometimes things are better. They know not to judge." The week before, she had dismissed a suggestion that her kids' faces should not be visible in photos accompanying this article.

"I'm not shy about being homeless," she maintains on the day of the interview. "We have nothing to be ashamed about. We have done nothing wrong."

The family has been turned down for multiple rented properties before even the viewing stage. Irina estimates that she has applied for over 100 apartments and houses as a would-be HAP tenant, to no avail. One landlord told her only professional applications would be considered, while another declined to accept lone parents. Others said they would call back but never did.

Social housing

Word finally came through this month that the family would be getting social housing in Cabra, about 15 minutes' walk from the kids' school. It will be their first time having a garden in five years, not to mention a chimney for Christmas. Since the house has three bedrooms, Irina plans to sleep in the sitting room so as to allow each child to have their own space. But first she must figure out how to afford flooring and furniture on their limited budget: local authority housing comes unfurnished, though financial assistance is sometimes available for the purchase of appliances and other goods. What keeps her going? "My children," she says. "They are my entire future."

Irina's story is a familiar one for Mike Allen, director of advocacy at Focus Ireland. Sitting in his office at the charity's HQ in Christchurch, Dublin 8, Allen minces no words about the ongoing crisis in housing. "Numbers are only going to move upwards unless we see a radical change in the Government's response," he says.

I ask if Minister Eoghan Murphy has become more receptive to Focus Ireland's policy recommendations since coming to office.

"Well, most of the significant things he and the previous minister have done, but two years after we proposed them. By the time they do them, they don't have the same impact."

Lack of speed has been a consistent issue, Allen says, pointing out that the Taoiseach predicted two years ago that the country will have turned a corner on homelessness by 2019. "Right from the beginning, [the Government] underestimated the scale of the problem."

Allen highlights that IBEC, the business group, has said that 36,000 new housing units would need to be built a year to tackle the crisis, adding that 20,000 would be a "very optimistic figure" for 2019. "So that means there might be as many as 16,000 more households looking for accommodation at the end of the year than at the beginning," he says.

Co-living developments are no viable solution to the crisis, Allen insists. "The biggest argument against the planning rules that allow for co-living is not necessarily that people won't want to live like that," he says, "but that it makes it far more attractive for landowners to put that kind of accommodation on than the sort that the majority want.

"Of course, when you're able to get many more people on a square metre of land, the return is going to be much higher."

What is urgently needed now, Allen stresses, is an ambitious plan for social housing. Narrow-mindedness is again an obstacle here, he argues. "There is a sense that if we build more than 20 social houses together, it's going to be a disaster - it'll be Ballymun all over again, and so on. We've internalised this idea that social housing is problematic when, in fact, most social housing estates are very successful - and with the ones that weren't, it's fairly obvious why. It's perfectly possible that if you plan properly and put in place decent services that these will be good communities that people will be happy to raise their kids in."

The stigma is being compounded by unhelpful statements from the Dáil, Allen says, mentioning Minister Murphy's recent reiteration that people who decline two "reasonable offers" of housing ought to be kept off the list for five years. That simply isn't a significant problem, according to Allen. "In our experience, there are usually very good reasons for turning down offers. But the message going out is that people needing social housing are messers and are very difficult."

Evicting to sell

Another bone of contention is the Government's reluctance to prevent landlords evicting to sell - the biggest single cause of family homelessness, according to Focus Ireland. Minister Murphy has maintained that private homeowners wanting to sell up can't be compelled to keep tenants in place, but Allen firmly challenges the claim that such a move would be unconstitutional.

"Our view is that we can find lots of ways to say it's not against the Constitution," he says, "and if it's against the Constitution, well then what about a moratorium for three years?"

Allen concedes, however, that any moratorium would need to include a get-out clause for cases of particular hardship. "We have landlords ringing in saying we're vilifying them," he says, "which isn't true. The disaster is happening in the private rented sector, yes, but landlords are carrying the burden because we haven't built enough social and affordable housing. That's what happens in society, though: sometimes you have to help people out for things you didn't cause yourself."

It is clear in Allen's view that the right to property has consistently been prioritised over the common good, despite the latter also being provided for in the Constitution.

"I don't think the general public wants it to be that way," he adds.

Legislation that pays greater heed to the needs of homeless children is required as well, according to Allen. "The current system is governed by the 1988 Housing Act, which came in at a time when the homeless person was assumed to be an adult male," he says.

"Frontline staff and managers in local authorities have been doing the best they can, without formal guidelines, to think through what their obligations are to children - legally, constitutionally, morally - and some have done a very good job and some haven't."

Allen also points out that the Government's focus on the number of families exiting homeless services overlooks the length of time people have spent without a home. Families who are less attractive to landlords are remaining homeless for longer and longer, he says.

In a statement to Review, the Department of Housing insisted that addressing homelessness was "an absolute priority" for the Government. "Budget 2019 allocated €146m for the provision of homeless services by the local authorities - an increase of over 25pc on 2018," it said. "This funding will ensure that the local authorities can provide the best possible supports to those individuals and families experiencing homelessness, until they can be supported to move to a home."

On the matter of landlords evicting to sell, a spokesperson added: "In situ tenancy protection already exists for sale of 10 or more properties in a single development. This protection, known as the Tyrrelstown Amendment, was introduced in 2016, and aims to give effect to the Government's objective to provide for proportionate and justifiable limitations on the eviction of 10+ tenancies as a consequence of the sale of buy-to-let properties.

Social repercussions

"Sale with tenant in situ in Ireland is considered to depress the sale price achieved by as much as 20pc or more and the Government received advice that to restrict the sale of someone's property in this way may be unconstitutional. The Minister met with the CEOs of the NGOs earlier this year to discuss these issues."

More than 5,000 homeless people moved into independent tenancies in 2018, according to the department, with the local authority stock of social housing increasing by over 8,000.

It estimates that another 10,000 will be added to the pool of social housing properties this year.

Among those at the coalface of services is Niamh Lambe, who manages Focus Ireland's family homeless action team. The team comprises case managers and child support workers working with families in hubs and private emergency accommodations like hotels, as well as self-accommodating families.

Case managers generally help the families with documentation and housing applications, while child support workers directly support children through the trauma of homelessness, providing therapeutic play, toddler groups and summer camps, as well as making referrals for assessment.

Only about 9pc of children on Focus Ireland's caseload currently have access to a child support worker - much too low a figure, Lambe stresses. "Kids don't always verbalise," she says. "They might show us what's going on in behavioural changes, working with a staff member on a one-to-one basis, but we're not always seeing the layers of trauma.

"There are problems that will only come to light when they're older."

Homelessness impacts children in a multitude of other ways, Lambe continues. "We know that there are developmental delays with some children. Some just don't have a space to crawl or play or do their homework. At every developmental milestone, their needs are at risk of not being met in certain accommodations - particularly with self-accommodating families, where children are spending a lot of their days in buggies while mum or dad looks to find a place for the night."

There can be social repercussions as well for the homeless child. "All of a sudden they're displaced, maybe going to school across the city," Lambe says.

"They can't have friends over or have playdates, and they might not get invited to things then as a result. Some people feel like they can't explain their situations because of the stigma, so they become further marginalised."

Irina is well aware of how homeless people can be viewed, having herself experienced judgmental attitudes. One nurse in a clinic she visited with Octavian asked if she was single and enquired as to why she was homeless, even before speaking to her son.

"From the outside, it might look like it's lazy people living a hotel," she says, "but really it could happen to anybody."

There is a line she tells her kids to say now if anyone ever jokes about them living in a family hub: "Yes, I am. And I'm still human."

Homeless Crisis In Numbers

36,000 - The number of new housing units that business group IBEC estimates are needed to be built a year to tackle the housing crisis

20,000 - The "very optimistic figure" for 2019 that Focus Ireland believes will be built

56%- The percentage of homeless who originate from outside of Ireland

58% - The percentage of homeless families consisting of just one parent

3,794 - The number of children living in emergency accommodation in Ireland, according to the Department of Housing

5,000 - The number of homeless people who moved into independent tenancies in 2018.

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