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‘This Christmas morning, 2,642 kids will wake up in temporary accommodation: I know how hard that is on their parents – I’ve been there’


This Christmas will be a bit of a weird one, given the ongoing slo-mo car crash that has been 2020, with many of us not being able to see our loved ones because we are all stuck at home. Imagine then what it is like for those who are stuck, but not at home, because they have no home.

hile street homelessness is the most visible and extreme end of the homelessness spectrum, there are many more invisible people — thousands of parents and children — who are homeless and stuck in emergency accommodation.

Anyone who has ever experienced this will know it’s the worst kind of limbo, your life on hold as you become increasingly stressed just trying to manage basic everyday tasks like cooking, eating, laundry, homework. Isolation replaces connection — it’s not like you can invite your friends around, if your bed doubles up as your dining room table, your desk, your sofa.

At the moment, there are 1,117 families in hostels, B&Bs, and other emergency facilities ill-equipped for family life. This includes 2,642 children who will be waking up on Christmas morning in cramped and often soulless temporary spaces.

And because Covid has eclipsed so much this year, the urgent needs of these families have been put on hold. The homeless charity Focus Ireland has launched a Christmas campaign, which — in a year where the charity sector has suffered great losses —needs our support. So what can we do?

“Usually we appreciate donations at Christmas of toys, clothes, etc, but handling and distribution is more difficult this year due to Covid,” says John O’Haire, Focus Ireland’s head of family services. “So we are asking people to instead donate money or even purchase vouchers, and we will distribute them to families in emergency accommodation.”

In my opinion, a bald fact of modern life is that neoliberalism has made it OK to blame individuals for their own poverty-induced predicaments, despite homelessness being the result of larger systemic failure. “Anyone can become homeless,” says John O’Haire. “Many families become homeless due to housing supply and cost issues, and these people could come from any background.”

The causes of homelessness are down to a lack of housing supply, the crazy cost of rent, and a lack of affordable social housing. “Some people also have issues relating to family breakdown, domestic violence, and mental health issues,” he says.

Homelessness is a nightmare. Twenty years ago, my landlord sold the flat I was renting, making me homeless. I had a small baby, and wanted somewhere permanent, but couldn’t afford a mortgage. So I applied for a housing association place, and spent five months waiting in emergency accommodation; this was, relatively speaking, a very short time (many people spend years in temporary accommodation) in an era where social housing was not on the verge of extinction. But it felt like forever.

My baby and I were initially offered a room in a filthy, urine-soaked hostel full of violence and active addiction, before being moved — after strenuously complaining — to a less awful but still grim room in shabby, chaotic accommodation. There was a garden, which was a godsend, plus a tiny, grimy kitchenette. The bathroom was shared with several other families. I was one of the lucky ones — I was vocal and knew my rights, and it was pre-crash, pre-austerity.

When my situation later changed, I was able to move on from social housing to a house of my own. But I will never forget those five months of emergency accommodation — not just the physical constraints of living in one small, grotty room, but the anxiety, insecurity, uncertainty and stress. The feeling of powerlessness and limbo.

And I only had one small baby. Imagine doing it with older children. Or teens. Imagine the impact on them, and their development. Imagine doing that now, in a pandemic.

“For a family living in emergency accommodation, life can become extremely pressurised,” says John O’Haire. “Limited or no availability of cooking facilities. Children trying to do their homework and play with no space to do so, no outlet to have friends over, and always living in the same room as the rest of the family. Children, especially teenagers, need some privacy and time to themselves. For smaller kids, there is a lack of space for development like space to crawl and learn to walk.

“Home projects, study and homework can be extremely difficult without the physical or mental headspace for older children and studying for exams is particularly difficult and stressful.

“The building blocks for growing up are family, friends and community, sports, easy access to school, football training or dance class; children are robbed of these things when they go into emergency accommodation.”

Also, because we continue to attribute systemic failure onto individuals, there is the shame factor. “The difficulty of trying to survive over a long period of time can be traumatic,” says John O’Haire. “People feel stigmatised, and because of the lack of housing supply, the situation feels hopeless. Children and parents have told us that over time they feel so worn down that they find it hard to cope.

“Because of the stigma surrounding homelessness, teenagers in particular don’t tell their friends and peers that they’re homeless and this piles on even more pressure that the usual stresses of schoolwork and exams.”

Nobody in a wealthy economy such as ours should have to live like this, no matter who they are or where they are from or what their story is.

“We know the public want to do everything they can,” says John O’Haire. “It’s important that they continue to support us and our call on the Government to end homelessness. We asked families what practical things they need, and they told us that on a day-to-day basis they need somewhere safe to be and bring their family, somewhere their children can get support, somewhere they can get hot nutritious food, somewhere to do their laundry and somewhere to do their homework and get some help with their homework when they need it.”

People trapped in emergency accommodation also need support in getting help in finding a permanent home: “Over the last year, we’ve developed a family centre to do exactly these things and with the support of public donations that centre is up and running in the inner city. We hope in 2021 we will secure statutory funding to keep going with the family centre.

“We’ve made significant progress this year working with the State, local authorities and NGOs to cut the number of people homeless from a record total of over 10,000 to 8,737. We are particularly pleased with the reduced number of children who are homeless, which fell by 30pc, from 3,826 in October last year to 2,642 this month.

“This partnership work has to continue with urgency as we must remember that the harsh reality is that nearly 3,000 children will still be waking up homeless on Christmas morning.”


Broadcaster Mairead Ronan in a space designed as a typical 12×12 foot hotel room showcasing what life is like for the 2,642 children living in emergency accommodation this Christmas

How Focus Ireland helps: Katie’s story

Katie (30) has been in homeless and domestic violence refuges since her first child was born. She is now in a three-bedroom supported transitional housing unit, with three small children under three. She went in to a domestic violence refuge after the father of her eldest child violently assaulted her. She said she became dependent on drugs after they lost their first baby.

She amicably separated from the dad of her two younger children before the birth of her youngest, but when she was in hospital giving birth, social workers said they would take the three children into care if she didn’t have a proper home to move into.

The father of Katie’s two youngest children had a house big enough to offer them all accommodation, inviting them to move in with him, even though he and Katie were no longer a couple. However, Social Welfare didn’t accept that Katie wasn’t in a relationship with her ex, and withheld her correct financial support. Nor was the lifestyle of her ex conducive to creating a secure family environment for herself and her small children.

At the start of 2020, she and her children moved out to an apartment block, where she witnessed a violent crime. She subsequently had a breakdown.

Katie was placed in a Focus Ireland transitional house, where she says she feels far happier, safer and more secure. It gives her the independence she needs but there is support on hand if she needs it. She acknowledges now that she is not yet ready for independent living, as she needs time to recover from so much trauma.

She loves where she is now and says she has the Focus Ireland staff in a building in her estate and she can see them whenever she feels low or needs support. She is working towards her goal of moving out of transitional housing and hopes when she is ready that there will be a home available for her.

Katie is determined to break the intergenerational cycle of care and abuse and is working really hard to give her three children the secure childhood she didn’t have. She has no alcohol or addiction issues and is no longer dependent on drugs. She just needs safe secure housing, the same as we all do.

Health & Living


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