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'The Irish Examiner' - Homelessness

The gates of UCC were blurred, as sheets of heavy rain ricocheted off the outside of the windscreen, condensation now varnishing the inside. I perched my head forward and peered up, trying to get a better view of the B&B which had become obscured since we had parked. Next to me, my practice teacher spoke with someone on the phone, the anxiety and concern evident in her voice. “She’s up in Drinan street collecting the cheque”, said the distressed voice on the other end of the phone. Outside, students shuffled past a long line of street lamps, all of them draped with general election slogans. It appeared recovery was in the air, and we needed to keep it going. Meanwhile, just a ten minute walk away, a young woman and her three year old child queued in a small office on a side street, seeking financial assistance in order that they could access the security and warmth of the B&B I now had in my view. She desperately needed the cheque she was queuing for, but that desperation had become her normality. Living dawn to dark, not knowing where her temporary hearth would lay the following day had become her daily ritual. This had become the daily ritual of many. 

Nine weeks ago, I started a professional placement with a family support project based in a disadvantaged area of the city. This is the first of two 14-week placements I must complete as part of my Social Work degree in UCC. Tasked with supporting families, project workers within this agency encounter a multitude of different issues on a daily basis. Their work can envelope addiction, mental ill-health, domestic abuse, issues with child development and a litany of other challenges in a single morning. As a result, my experience of the issues facing vulnerable families in disadvantaged communities has been somewhat overwhelming, and hugely humbling. However, amidst all the challenges I have encountered thus far, there remains a stand out issue; homelessness. We have heard ad nauseam about the issue of homelessness for the past number of months. Yet even with the best will in the world, most of us have no idea just how bad the issue is. While I always paid heed to the stories about the rise in homelessness, I could never fully relate to, or comprehend the issue, until now. 

Unfortunately, the plight facing the young woman and child I acknowledged in the opening of this piece is no longer unusual. The very mention of the word ‘homeless’ garners images in your mind of a solitary man or woman, down on their luck, sleeping rough in a doorway. In the land of miraculous recoveries, political amnesia and ‘putting children first’ that is no longer the case. Busy hallways and backrooms in B&B’s and hotels throughout the city have become the ‘secure’ and ‘nurturing’ environment for vast swathes of children. They have evolved from being a stop-gap for adults and families in emergencies, to long term, pseudo social-housing units. Bedrooms have become entire homes and are shared between parents and children. Residential units for homeless women and children are bursting at the seams, somehow managing to struggle their way through the abyss that faces the women and children that now swell their doorways. 

The Child and Family Agency recently released a statement on the homelessness crisis. While acknowledging it, and outlining how they would support families experiencing homelessness, I found their statement somewhat conciliatory to what is an unacceptable reality. While focusing on the protection of a child’s education, it failed to acknowledge the detrimental effects that homelessness can have on a child’s physical and emotional development and well-being. That being said, I wonder if their already overstretched service even has the capacity to tackle the issue, and if this harsh reality had influenced the statement? Has a lack of investment in services, and a previous embargo on hiring in the public service starved them of the ability to engage such an enormous challenge? While my very limited interaction with city council housing services during placement has been positive, I believe that issues remain with the vetting system also. Housing services discriminate on the basis of ‘anti-social’ activities, with no real clarity on how significant the severity, frequency, or historic nature of these activities will be in affecting your application. While this may sound fair to many, the knock-on effect of this is that innocent children suffer for the mistakes of their parent/s and/or families. For many vulnerable parents, this also makes the process of applying for social housing extremely difficult, and fraught with complications. However, irrespective of these nuances, services need funding and resources. Ireland’s ‘recovery’ deemed social housing provision, as well as stability in the rental market, surplus to requirements. Lack of investment in social housing coupled with a lack of political desire and will to regulate the rental market has created this crisis. The recovery has discriminated viciously. 

A few days after that rainy day on the Western Road, I stood in a kitchen that overlooked a large slice of the cityscape. Houses littered the hills of the rolling landscape for as far the eye could see. Peering out that window, it seemed cruelly ironic that we shared this view with a mother of six who was soon to become homeless, a pawn to an unforgiving private rental market and an overburdened social housing system; priced out of one, seemingly unable to access the other. It felt hugely disempowering as my practice teacher and I stood there, hugely aware that the support of our leaning shoulders were all that we could provide, when the protection of a roof was what this woman and her family really needed. But in my experience thus far, that is the reality facing family support projects and community services. Tasked with supporting families, but unable to perform miracles, they work with the real-life consequences of government cuts, inadequate resources and political choices. 

In recent days I spoke with a worker from one of the main residential units involved in providing shelter to women and children in Cork City. While I had gained some brief insight into the individual lives affected by homelessness, I was keen to understand the wider statistics. How many women and children swell the doorways of homeless services on a daily basis? How many children leave school today, desperately yearning to return to the warmth of a familiar hearth, unsure why the nourishment of ‘recovery’ avoids their family’s table? The numbers are staggering. At the time of writing, this one unit had ten families sleeping in their unit every single night. Coupled with the additional 18 single women that sleep there every night, this means they are consistently at full capacity, and have been for some time. They also have a waiting list of 23 families, accompanied by 39 children, waiting to access their unit and/or services. I also spoke with another worker in the same unit. As an outreach worker, this person is tasked with engaging women and families outside of the unit, the vast majority of whom are based in B&B’s and hotels. At the time of writing, this worker is engaged with 13 families and 37 children, all who are living in B&Bs or hotels. Shockingly, she relayed to me how at one stage she was actively engaged with 18 families and 46 children in B&B’s or hotels throughout the city. Simply put, this is unacceptable. 

Just last week a report compiled by the European Commission in 2015 was published. Scathing in its assessment of the previous government's “highly regressive” implementation of tax cuts over capital spending and public service investment, this report illustrates one thing in clear detail; the homelessness crisis was entirely avoidable. Political inaction and a right wing agenda has been responsible for the situation many families and children find themselves in today. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the incoming government to truly understand the daily reality facing men, women, and children most especially, in towns and cities throughout Ireland. The time for empty rhetoric is over. As general election posters begin their descent down lamp posts and fences, their promises and statements stain the air, joining a colourful canvas of the promises that have gone before. ‘We will never fail children again’, our nation cried, as report after report on institutional abuse shamed our state, and our people. Yet here we are again, allowing our political system fail children. What kind of ‘recovery’ leaves innocent children without a home? What kind of state is happy to deny a small child the comfort of their own bed? On the centenary of our independence, it is ironic, that while I harvest enormous hope from having witnessed such incredible work over the past nine weeks, that my experience of the reality of the homelessness crisis, has ensured that I have never been less proud to be Irish. 


Originally appeared in www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/analysis/the-homelessness-crisis-makes-me-ashamed-to-be-irish-389720.html

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