Monday 24 June 2019

This is how we 'cherish' our homeless children - by dumping them in B&Bs

The cost of private accommodation for homeless families has reached €3m a year, but the real cost is to the well-being of the children who suffer from a lack of stability. Photo is posed
The cost of private accommodation for homeless families has reached €3m a year, but the real cost is to the well-being of the children who suffer from a lack of stability. Photo is posed
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

While the Government preaches a mantra of recovery and prosperity in advance of the General Election, the numbers of homeless children in the country continues to spiral.

In November 2014, Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil: "A situation whereby children, in particular, are homeless is not one that anybody can condone." Since then, the number of homeless children in the country has more than doubled - from 668 in 309 families to 1,571 in 738 families.

Most of these children are under the age of eight.

If the State isn't condoning this epidemic of child homelessness, it is certainly tolerating it, as the problem continues to deteriorate with no discernible short-term strategy in place to keep families in their homes. The scale of the problem makes a mockery of any grandiose plans to celebrate the centenary of the 1916 Rising, whose architects envisioned an Ireland in which all of the children of the country were "cherished equally".

The damage being done to these children does not just extend to the cramped, unsuitable temporary accommodation they are living in - it permeates every aspect of their lives, affecting their health, education, friendships and social development.

Entire families are confined to the one room of hotels, with no cooking facilities, no privacy and nowhere for children to play.

Often, these hotels are located far away from children's extended families, their friends and their schools, meaning their interactions with important social networks are fractured.

There is also a lot of research to suggest that children in homeless families are at greater risk of physical and mental illness, while inadequate facilities in emergency accommodation may be putting children's health and safety at risk.

Earlier this year, for instance, a homeless family with a terminally ill three-year-old child prone to seizures complained about the emergency accommodation they had been placed in. Problems with access meant they feared that an ambulance would not be able to enter the complex if one was needed to save their child's life.

Think about that for a moment.

In Ireland, on the eve of 2016, we have homeless, terminally ill toddlers being housed in emergency accommodation. These children don't even have the security of a permanent room in a B&B or hotel.

Their living arrangements are dependent on the vagaries of the tourist season and families can be shunted from one hotel to the next multiple times a week, depending on demand.

Last week, an Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children was informed by a Harvard Professor, Kevin Nugent, that the first 1,000 days of children's lives provide "the essential foundations of stability for all other aspects of human development, the capacity to face adversity, to have friendships, to have success and happiness in school, the community and work".

He told the committee: "The process of building the brain is not genetically determined" but is shaped by environmental factors and that by the age of three a "child's orientation towards life is very firmly established".

This means that "prolonged adverse experiences, such as deprivation, abuse, neglect, exposure to violence or the absence of supportive adult relationships can lead to changes in the physical structure and functioning of the brain" that have lifelong consequences.

This is why the epidemic of child homelessness is a crisis and should be treated as such - because the experiences of children growing up in poverty and isolation can shape the adults they become.

Childhood is finite and long-term solutions to the housing crisis will come too late for many of the children who are currently homeless and whose lives may be left permanently blighted.

If the Government isn't moved to act because of the developmental damage being inflicted on children, perhaps it will change its approach because the current strategy of housing families in unsuitable temporary accommodation makes no economic sense.

In the first three months of this year, local authorities in Dublin paid a whopping €7.1m to house homeless adults and children in hotels and other emergency accommodation. Of this, €3.7m went to the operators of private hotels and B&Bs. By contrast, in 2010, just €13,814 was spent on private accommodation for homeless people in the capital for the entire year.

These spiralling costs are now being replicated around the country. Perhaps the most extreme example is Galway City Council, which spent just €335 on emergency accommodation in January.

By July, this figure had ballooned to €25,767 - up an incredible 7,500pc in just seven months.

For Cork City Council, costs have increased from €1,267 per month to €14,201 in just 12 months.

According to Focus Ireland, the cost of private accommodation for every 50 homeless families is an enormous €3m per year.

Why does the Government prefer to pay these exorbitant rates instead of increasing rent supplement at a fraction of the cost - a measure that would also keep families in their homes?

Local authorities have a role to play too and vacant council housing is being left empty for far too long.

A report published yesterday, by the National Oversight and Audit Commission, revealed that the median time to re-let council houses was 24 weeks in 2014, but up to 82 weeks in some local authorities.

The report also revealed the numbers of vacant houses around the country - 4,919 - was nearly double the number of homeless adults. In the midst of a housing crisis, these figures are shameful.

The Government has been promising to address the homeless crisis for more than a year now, but in that time the problem has worsened. Patently, its plan is not working. However, instead of admitting this, it stubbornly refuses to try something different. It won't be government ministers who pay the price for this intransigence. Homeless families and their children will be the ones who suffer.

Irish Independent

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