Thursday 19 September 2019

Catherine Dunne: 'The State has failed, but it's the children who must bear the shame of homelessness'

Campaign: Focus Ireland life president Sr Stan at the launch of the Focus Ireland hard-hitting Christmas appeal which highlights that nearly 4,000 children are homeless. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Campaign: Focus Ireland life president Sr Stan at the launch of the Focus Ireland hard-hitting Christmas appeal which highlights that nearly 4,000 children are homeless. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Catherine Dunne

Picture this: it's 5.30am. The alarm on Gina's phone sounds.

She wakes her two sleeping children, hurrying them out of their beds so that they can get to the communal bathroom before the morning rush. The three of them will have to leave the hostel within the next 45 minutes.

Breakfast is a quick-quick bowl of cornflakes. Gina* hopes that yesterday's milk won't have gone off. The children sit on their beds to eat while she gathers up schoolbags, coats, hats. It's cold outside.

Jack is cranky. He's older than his sister and resents having to share the cramped space with her. He still remembers his old room, his real home. Lisa is whey-faced, barely awake. She looks small in her school uniform.

For an instant, Gina feels guilty all over again that the uniforms don't look as nice as they should. There is no iron available. She washes their clothes in the machine at the nearby Tesco and hangs them up, as quickly as she can, so that the creases don't gather.

But there's no time to worry about that now. They have two buses to catch.

They leave the hostel, Lisa dragging against her mother's hand. Jack walks ahead, resolute. He'll get to the bus stop before them.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Ireland is a signatory, declares that the state is obliged to protect the rights of every child, those 'that are most basic to existence, such as nutrition, shelter, [and] an adequate living standard'.

Close to 10,000 people are now homeless in Ireland: many of them in circumstances that could not be described as 'an adequate living standard'. And almost 4,000 of them are children.

Children represent 25pc of the general population - but 40pc of those who are homeless.

For teenagers - those who are technically adult - homelessness is equally challenging.

Katie is frequently distraught when she considers the impact on her daughter, Eleanor.

"It's not healthy, an adult woman and a teenager living cheek-by-jowl in such a cramped space. I'm terrified I'll be a burden on my daughter. That she'll feel responsible for my welfare. Sometimes, the guilt is intolerable," says Katie.

In addition, Eleanor feels constantly on her guard. She can't let any of her fellow students at UCD know she is homeless: she pretends she still lives at her old address.

Otherwise, the shame is too great.

The findings in a recent Irish study by Dr Geraldine Scanlon and Grainne McKenna entitled 'Home Works' tallied with those of international researchers over the past 20 years. Children and young people are not simply 'placed' at risk through homelessness. Instead, most will suffer specific damage to their emotional, as well as their physical well-being.

Parents of young children - parents like Gina - worry about how restricted their children's lives become once homelessness happens. How the network of young friends shrinks because they can never have anybody 'home'. How it's often impossible to enrol your kids in extra-curricular activities because of logistics, or financial strain.

The pain parents feel is palpable: particularly when they see how, even in very young children, shame accompanies the emotional distress of being without a stable home.

And how the choice often has to be made between feeding your child, or taking another bus journey.

These parents, too, "get up early in the morning".

Among the young people I met during Focus Ireland's project 'Hidden City: Stories of Homelessness,' were Celena, Elaine and Carolina. All impressive young women, all of whom have made, or are making, the transition from foster and residential care to 'the real world'.

They speak of the bewilderment that accompanied their 18th birthdays: suddenly, they found themselves without a home.

"I'd no idea you were just let out when you reached 18," Carolina says. "Where was I to go? What was I to do? I was told a week before my birthday that my time in care was at an end."

'Chéad Chéim', a Focus Ireland supported-accommodation project, has helped all three make the transition.

Nonetheless, in excess of 15pc of vulnerable young people leaving the care system end up homeless.

Not just 'hidden' - these young people feel they are often invisible.

And today is World Children's Day in an Ireland where 3,829 children do not have a place to call home.

*All names have been changed. 'Hidden City: Stories of Homelessness', is a weekly series posted on

Irish Independent

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