Saturday 17 March 2018

Lost souls: The children Ireland has abandoned

It's not just those sleeping rough on the streets who are homeless in this shameful crisis. Close to 700 families are in temporary accommodation, trapped in a nightmare not of their making

Short-term relief: Sonia spent a year with her two children living between hostels, family and friends. She now has an apartment in Tallaght, but only on a temporary basis. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Short-term relief: Sonia spent a year with her two children living between hostels, family and friends. She now has an apartment in Tallaght, but only on a temporary basis. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Miriam Donohoe

Miriam Donohoe

This time last year, Marina* was looking forward to spending Christmas with her three children in the comfortable private rented house that had been home since they moved to Ireland from Russia eight years ago.

"I had built a good life here," says Marina, who arrived as a refugee after her husband was killed in the Chechen-Russian war.

"Ireland opened its arms to us and we were doing well. We were in the same house in Lucan, felt part of a community and the kids were happy in their schools. I had gone back to college to get skills so I could work. I could see a good future."

This year, Marina and her children - aged 11, 12 and 14 - are facing a very different and bleak Christmas, one they will spend in a cramped hotel room in south-west Dublin where they have been for the last month after being displaced from their rental property because the landlord sold up. Life for the family now revolves around a bed in the room. There are no facilities to cook. There is no privacy. Nowhere to do homework. And the kids can't invite friends to play.

Marina and her children are part of the disturbing story of homelessness in Ireland today. They are one of 700 "displaced" families who are being housed in hotels, guest houses and hostels whilst desperately waiting for more long-term accommodation.

Homelessness has long been a disturbing aspect of our society and traditionally was a result of alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence and mental health issues. But due to a storm of economic factors, mainly spiralling rent heightened by a housing shortage, the numbers of homeless, especially families, who are displaced due to circumstances beyond their control has reached crisis levels.

The statistics are frightening. An average two families a day are losing their homes in Dublin - and the main reason is they can't afford rent increases. And the rents keep going up because there is no supply. Marina's rent in Lucan was €1,000 before she had to leave, and she says a similar house in the same area cannot be got for less than €1,400 today. "And even at that there are as many as 30 people at every viewing. Even if you had the money, there is only a slim chance of getting the lease."

The consequence is that this Christmas morning as many as 1,425 children will wake up in emergency accommodation - most likely an anonymous hotel room - squeezed in with their parents and siblings.

This week marked the first anniversary of Jonathan Corrie's death on a Dublin street, yards from the Dáil. There was great hope that his death would be the catalyst for change. The Taoiseach proclaimed homelessness to be a top priority. Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly promised that there would be a bed for anybody who wanted one by Christmas.

The Government held a homeless summit which brought those working in the sector together to ensure nobody had to sleep rough due to lack of a bed. A 20-point plan was agreed.

However, one year on, the stark reality is the homeless crisis has deepened - homeless families are the big issue. The numbers have doubled in 12 months. And there is no sign of the tide being stemmed with the numbers without a home increasing every month, and the problem of supply still not tackled.

"This time last year if you told me that we would have almost 700 families and 1,500 children homeless, I would have said absolutely not, that is scaremongering," according to Mike Allen, Director of Advocacy with homeless charity Focus Ireland.

"We have never seen it so bad. These are families who are living under terrible stress. It is hard to imagine. So many parents are truly dreading Christmas this year."

He said the explosive homeless families crisis was not foreseen - and the 20-point plan which was agreed at the housing summit last December had little in it to tackle the problem of homeless families.

"No one factored in the fact that families in the private rental sector were going to be displaced in such big numbers. Rents just soared and tenants couldn't afford to keep up. And there are landlords who can't keep up mortgage payments and who are being repossessed by lenders who evict tenants and sell."

Allen fears that the crisis will heighten. With over 30,000 landlords in arrears, more repossession cases will be coming before the courts in coming months. "If even half of these go ahead, we are in big trouble, we will have more on the streets."

There has been action, he acknowledges, with the opening of new extreme weather emergency beds for single people and the plan to build modular homes. But the main problem is supply, supply, supply. Until more units come on stream, there is no hope of securing a solution to the problem.

The two-year rent freeze announced recently by the Government will benefit some people but it falls way short of the action required.

"I am wondering what will the story be this time next year - are the figures going to double again? The same factors which caused it to double this year still exist so it is not beyond the bounds of possibility, sadly."

Focus Ireland's Family Services Team Manager Róisín McDonnell, who has worked with the homeless for 15 years, says it is impossible to describe the impact on families who find themselves displaced, especially on children

"We see parents doing their best under such difficult circumstance in one room in a hotel. It is traumatic and confusing for children. Doing homework is very difficult and they may be far away from their school. We have seen school attendance dip and the health of children affected because there are no proper cooking facilities and families survive on take-aways and poor food."

The average stay for a family in a hotel is three to four months, but for many it is longer. An estimated 60 families in Dublin are in hotel accommodation for more than a year.

With Christmas fast approaching, there is concern that some hotels housing families will be closed for the holiday period or for renovations. So families currently in a hotel may even be displaced from that accommodation to something else before Christmas Day.

"We are trying to find out what the situation will be so we can be prepared. I have spoken to parents who say they wish Christmas was not happening - but we will try to make sure there is a little magic for those who need it."

For Marina and her three children, Christmas Day will be spent in their dreary hotel room. "If I leave to spend it for a few days with friends there is no guarantee the room will be there for me when I come back. I am afraid to go so we will stay here. We don't know if we will have a Christmas dinner, I am not sure if the hotel has anything planned."

But there is light at the end of the tunnel for some homeless.

Sonia*, a mother-of-two, was recently housed by Focus Ireland in a two-bed apartment in Tallaght after spending a year living between hostels, family and friends.

"I can't believe the change in my kids since we moved in, they are different people. It means so much to them that they have somewhere to call home after being dragged from place to place for a year."

Sonia had been in private rented accommodation and paying €1,200 a month - but when the rent jumped to €1,350 a month when her lease was renewed, she couldn't pay.

"I spent months begging for accommodation from family and friends, it was horrendous. My relationship with my mother became strained and I knew I couldn't stay there long term. At one stage I ended up sleeping for a few nights in the Priory in Tallaght village after having a row with her. That is how I came in touch with the Focus Ireland services first."

Before getting the apartment Sonia and her children were living in an attic room in a hostel in Upper Gardiner Street, an experience she described as a nightmare.

"It was a tiny room with bunk beds and the bottom bed was a double. It was degrading. I brought the kids every day on the Luas out to school in Tallaght. They were frightened and confused."

But for Sonia the reprieve is only temporary as she has the apartment for just three months. She has joined the throngs looking desperately for private rented accommodation.

"I am just determined to get through Christmas and enjoy what we have for the moment. I don't want to concern the kids. I will deal with next year when it comes around."

* Names have been changed

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