'No matter what I have done in my past, I have a right to be housed' - homeless mother trolled on social media
Trudging the city for a bed is a gruelling exercise that homeless families must endure daily
Margaret Cash has emerged from her homeless ordeal of sleeping with her children in a Garda station with a temporary roof overhead but reeling from an online savaging.
She was trolled, shamed and ridiculed for everything, from having seven children to handling stolen goods years ago when she was drunk in a car. Her Facebook page was mined for photographs that were gleefully shared on social media; one of a box of beers and another of her posing beside her daughter in a communion gown apparently not befitting the child of a homeless mother who has been on the housing list for 11 years and who allegedly once turned down a council house - a claim she has denied.
"They're saying you should be ashamed - I already know that. I am ashamed of being homeless," she said this weekend. "No matter what I have done in my past, it doesn't take away from the fact that I have a right to be housed."
The 27-year-old mother from the travelling community has actually done the State some service. She has exposed another bleak milestone in the creeping advance of homelessness that went unnoticed until she posted a photograph last Wednesday night of six of her seven children sleeping in the reception area of Tallaght Garda Station, five sprawled across hard plastic chairs and one in his buggy.
It is now the norm that when homeless families are told there is no room at the inn, and when they have nowhere else to go, they are advised to take their children to their local Garda station to get off the streets.
Cash's children, aged from one to 11, were among 16 children who slept in Garda stations on the night she tweeted from Tallaght station. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) revealed last week that 48 families slept in Garda stations in June and 47 the month before that.
Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH), initially set up to help people sleeping rough in Dublin, is now pulling out its credit cards to book last-minute hotel rooms for homeless families when State-funded homeless initiatives cannot.
In the past year, the longest Margaret Cash has spent in one place was five weeks in Wicklow until the owner stopped taking council tenants. Finding a flat to rent online herself is not a runner. "Who is going to take a traveller with seven children?" she says.
Margaret Cash became homeless last September after the private house she was renting was repossessed. She has lived in emergency accommodation ever since.
So many families are turning up with children that the ICHH has converted a basement in its north inner-city Dublin office into a family room with toys and DVDs for the kids.
According to Anthony Flynn, the volunteer chief executive of ICHH, there is nothing cushy about the daily trudge around local authority offices, drop-in centres and telephoning crisis helpline numbers several times a day.
The first port of call is to Parkgate Hall, near Heuston Station, to register as homeless. After that, some families are asked to 'self-accommodate' - find a room themselves from a list supplied by the local authority. If you haven't found a bed by 4.30pm, said Flynn, you phone a Family Action Team to get your name on a board. "The search can start at 10.30am. They ring back at 2.30pm and 4.30pm and again at 10.30pm, and then they might be told there are no beds and to go Crosscare [a homeless charity] and get sleeping bags," he said.
A Focus Ireland leaflet advises families to present at their local Garda station if they can't access any other services out-of-hours. The idea is that gardai will ring an out-of-hours social worker. But according to city-centre gardai, families usually stay for the night.
"They are coming in for their own safety, to get off the streets," said one garda speaking on condition of anonymity.
Rough sleepers have long taken refuge in public reception areas and porches of Garda stations, particularly on cold nights, but families doing so is a relatively recent phenomenon. "One couple with a child came in a couple of times in the past two weeks," he said. They usually leave at 7am, when the cleaners come in.
The official agency dealing with homelessness in the capital is the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, operated by Dublin City Council. It has a €20m budget to find emergency and longer-term accommodation for people who are homeless, with work contracted out to Focus Ireland, the housing and homeless charity, and the Peter McVerry Trust.
ICHH doesn't have a contract with the local authority to find emergency accommodation, but it finds itself acting as a booking agent for the increasing number of families in need who present to their city-centre offices. The group has built a relationship with a couple of short-term letting agents for apartments around the city, and otherwise they scour hotels.com or Airbnb.
When they find a room, they pay for it on ICHH's credit card out of the charity's own donated funds - it is not reimbursed by Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE). The DRHE does not refer families to Anthony Flynn's group, but the ICHH regularly finds beds for families where the DRHE has failed.
"Two families presented here on Wednesday night, after they were told to present to Garda stations. Those two families that presented here, we were able to accommodate them in a matter of a half hour," Mr Flynn said. They found an apartment for one family and a bed and breakfast for the other.
"The thing is there is no joined-up thinking here. Why is it that Dublin Regional Homeless Executive could not pick up the phone to us and say 'what have you got available tonight?'" asked Flynn.
"We have no problem in saying this is what we've got, let's get those families accommodated. The last resort should be a Garda station."
Eoghan Murphy, the Minister for Housing, gave a nod to Anthony Flynn's concerns when he admitted the need for an "urgent review" of how state agencies deal with families presenting late at night in need of emergency accommod-ation. Specifically, he highlighted the need for "better communication" between the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, partner organisations and state agencies.
More than 9,874 people - 3,824 of them children - were officially homeless in June, a 28pc increase on last year. The pressures on finding emergency accommodation are about to get worse. Fr Peter McVerry, the veteran campaigner for homeless people, warned of an avalanche.
The minister has promised an additional 400 units, while there are long-term initiatives such as David Hall's attempt to buy some of the 2,700 empty homes from banks for social housing.
Eileen Gleeson, director of Dublin Region Homeless Executive, went on RTE radio last week to temper the outrage generated by Margaret Cash's photograph.
She said no one needed to sleep in a Garda station, and that if the family had kept in touch that night, they would have continued to work with them to find accommodation. She also said that it would be "much better if people came earlier in the evening to us".
Anthony Flynn responded: "What we are seeing is the spin around the offer. It was not a practical offer, it was not an empathetic offer and it was not a family-friendly offer.
"Margaret presented at the Garda station. Then she got a call back after 9pm that evening. She was told that there was accommodation for her and for five of her children - not all of her children - and she would have to travel to Meath. It was after 9pm and she was in Tallaght Garda Station with no transport." She also had to decide which two of her children to leave with family or friends.
Mr Flynn picked up Margaret Cash's tweet of her kids asleep in the Garda station and later shared it on social media, and contacted her last Thursday. The kids hung out in the family room while Flynn and the team phoned their contacts for rooms large enough for a family of eight.
In the end, they found a two-bed short-let apartment in the heart of the city centre that is normally let for €260 a night but which the ICHH got for €150 a night. Unless ICHH extends her stay, Margaret Cash will be back on the homeless roundabout come tomorrow. "I don't know what's going to happen or where I'm going to be. I'm dreading it," she said.