Focus Ireland will today launch a campaign to require Local Authorities to take the ‘Best Interests of the Child’ into account when working with families who present as homeless.
The campaign comes at a time when there are almost 3,500 children in emergency accommodation.
The director of advocacy with Focus Ireland Mike Allen told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that Local Authority staff nationwide were working extremely hard to deal with this crisis, but they needed more direction, training, and support.
At the end of March 2023, there were 3,472 children in emergency accommodation. This shows a shocking increase of 662 children since March last year. That is the equivalent of 28 classrooms of national schoolchildren (and their families) all becoming homeless in the last year.
Focus Ireland is calling for the reintroduction and passing into law of the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017, a piece of private members legislation introduced into the Dáil in 2017 by Deputy Jan O’Sullivan. The Bill aimed to amend the 1988 Housing Act so that local authorities would be required to consider the ‘best interests of the child’ in their decision making when a family presented as homeless.
Experiencing homelessness is a dreadful thing for anybody, man, woman or child, but particularly for children.
“Everybody knows that homelessness is a dreadful thing. Experiencing homelessness is a dreadful thing for anybody, man, woman or child, but particularly for children. It’s an appalling experience. First of all, there’s the trauma of losing your home where you think you’re comfortable, where you feel safe, where your toys are, your friends are, your all of your relationships.
“The loss of their home is traumatic in the first place. Then emergency accommodation may be a long way from your school and there may be no place for doing homework. You can’t invite your friends around. You lose all that sort of social contact.
“And still, despite the fact that we’ve been in a homeless crisis affecting families for almost ten years now, there’s an awful lot of stigma involved in it for the children. And children are ashamed to say they’re homeless to their friends. And their parents are still ashamed of something that is not their fault at all. And that shame and that stigma can lead to even deeper social isolation and problems”.
Mr Allen said that the level of response to the crisis by the country had been “slapdash”.
“We’ve always treated the family homeless crisis as the thing that’s a flash in the pan, that is going to go away and we have never put in place proper structures, procedures to make sure that we reduce the impact of the harm. Obviously, there should be no homelessness, there should be no children homeless.
“We’ve got to get more housing. We’ve got to get people out of homelessness. But while we have children who are homeless, we should be doing a much, much better job at protecting them from the harm that that causes.”
Under the legislation, which the campaign is calling to be enacted, local authorities would be required to follow a simple test, said Mr Allen.
At present local authorities were saying to families seeking help, “go back to your brother or your sister or a friend and stay with them and sleep on their sofa for the next while until you can sort yourself out”.
But no checks were being made to see if that was in the best interest of the child, he warned.
Mr Allen said that the legislation would not “solve all the problems” but its great advantage was its simplicity and its clarity.
It could be done quickly and we could spend another five years doing some really elaborate piece of legislation and getting it through the Dáil, he said.
On the issue of housing, he said that Ireland was “behaving worse” than it did when the country was poorer.