Róisín McDonnell, Service Manager, Focus Ireland
Focus Ireland is driven by the fundamental belief that homelessness is wrong. Wrong because it is a failure of society that creates victims out of ordinary people and robs them of their potential. Wrong because it can be prevented, it can be solved but is allowed to continue and in doing so, undermines society.
I have been working with Focus Ireland for 16 years in the area of family homelessness. During this time, I have seen a dramatic shift in the profile of families that present to services. Sixteen years ago, families typically became homeless due to a myriad of complex personal and/or family problems and they often remained homeless for these same reasons. However, this picture has changed quite dramatically in recent years.
In 2012, Focus Ireland set out to work with all families experiencing homelessness in Dublin. At that time, we identified 136 families, many of whom had been in homeless accommodation on a long-term basis. Over the course of the following three years, we worked intensively with these families to move them out of homelessness and into long-term, affordable homes. However, as this work was taking place, new families in need of emergency accommodation began to present to our services. While an average of eight new families per month were becoming homeless in 2012, that number began to increase month-on-month and, by 2017, an average of 80 new families per month were presenting as in need of emergency accommodation. These families had not experienced homelessness previously and, for the most part, did not have complex needs; they had become homeless because there was no affordable housing available to them. Currently in Dublin, there are over 1,200 families, with 3,000 dependent children, accommodated in commercial hotels and other forms of emergency accommodation.
The Focus Ireland Family Homeless Action Team is the main service working with families experiencing homelessness in Dublin and is partly funded by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. It is a multi-disciplinary team with 32 staff dedicated to working directly with as many families and children as possible, the main goals being to minimise the negative impact of homelessness and assist them in finding suitable housing. More often than not, children and young people do not understand why they have become homeless nor do they understand why they remain in homeless accommodation or when this situation is likely to end. For this reason, the team’s work with families also aims to create environments where family members can talk about what is happening in their lives, at both individual and collective levels.
Currently, once a family has been assessed as homeless by the local authority, they will be placed in either a commercial hotel, emergency accommodation or a ‘Family Hub’. Family Hubs, which were introduced in 2017, house homeless families in communal settings. If not placed directly into a commercial hotel or ‘Hub’, families are given ‘self-accommodation status’, which means they have to independently source commercial hotel accommodation – the costs of which are covered by the relevant local authority.
The Focus Ireland Family Homeless Action Team is notified of all families who are accepted as homeless by the local authority and the team then endeavours to make contact with the families as soon as possible. At any given time, the team works intensively with approximately 600 families who have been placed in emergency accommodation, Family Hubs or commercial hotels. The team’s child support workers work directly on a one-to-one basis with the children of these families, many of whom require additional support in coming to terms with, and processing, what is happening in their lives.
During 2017, a majority of families experiencing homelessness were single parent families, most headed by a woman parenting alone. In our work with these families, we observe how deeply impacted mothers are by the experience of homelessness, as they use words like ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ to describe how they feel about their situations. Women routinely say that they don’t feel like women and mothers say that they don’t feel like mothers. In our experience, mothers carry high levels of self-blame, often fearing that they have failed their children. Homelessness also challenges women’s ability to parent and impacts their relationships with their children. Mothers tell us that, despite their best efforts to maintain a routine for their family, it is virtually impossible to do so when living in one room that is simultaneously their bedroom, living room and dining room, a well as the only space available for play and interaction with their children. The bed in the room, which is used for sleeping, eating, doing homework, playing and watching TV, often becomes the focal point for family life. Meal time is stressful and, with no access to cooking facilities, the nutritional needs of the family are invariably compromised. Mothers try to shield and protect them their children from their own personal fears but, because there is no private space available to them in the places where they live, this is extremely difficult and the children inevitably sense their mother’s worry and distress.
At any given time, there is also a cohort of families who are waiting for emergency accommodation on a nightly basis and who do not know from one night to the next where they will be accommodated. These are primarily families who are deemed not to meet the criteria to be assessed as homeless by the local authority and are, therefore, not entitled to emergency accommodation, except on humanitarian grounds on a nightly basis if they are deemed to be at risk of sleeping rough with their children. Supported by staff in Focus Ireland, these families undergo a complex process each night in an effort to secure a place to stay for themselves and their children. In circumstances where no beds are available in emergency accommodation, families are diverted to Garda (police) stations. All of this raises serious questions about the safety and welfare of the children of these families – which Focus Ireland continuously tracks and reports to child protection services. However, local authorities view homelessness as a housing, and not a child protection or welfare, issue. Furthermore, child protection services will only become involved in instances where there is documented physical, emotional or sexual abuse or evidence of a risk of such abuse.
The Irish Government is committed to moving families out of commercial hotel accommodation and is investing heavily in Family Hubs, believing that these settings provide a more cost effective, appropriate and family-orientated model of emergency accommodation. The real solution, however, lies in preventative strategies. Unless the inflow of families to homelessness can be stalled, family homelessness will, in all likelihood, continue to rise in the short- to medium term.