Recession continues to put children onto the streets

By Virginia Furness

Youth homelessness soars as new figures report that nearly 800 children were in need of emergency accommodation last year. Up to a quarter of these children were under 12.

Figures compiled by the Health Service Executive recorded 785 children were homeless in 2009. Of these, 705 were from Dublin and 80 from other parts of Ireland.

Although many take refuge in emergency hostels and other temporary residential services, a large number are at significant risk, sleeping rough on the streets and bedding-down in hospitals and Garda stations.

Despite significant investment from both the Government and private charities to tackle the problem of youth homelessness, numbers have risen significantly since 2004 when the number fell to 495 following the launch of the Irish Government’s policy: “Homelessness – An Integrated Strategy” in May 2000.

From this the Homeless Preventative Strategy was launched in February 2002 with vision that: “By 2010, long-term homelessness and the need for people to sleep rough will be eliminated in Dublin.”

Figures suggest, however, that this vision is yet to be realised. “Counted In” the most recent periodic assessment of homelessness, which was conducted by the Homeless Agency, recorded 2015 homeless people in the Greater Dublin area.

Children are equally at risk. Figures show that over the past three years, numbers of homeless children have reached significant heights with 800 in 2008 and 831 in 2007.

The recent downturn in the economy is thought to be one of the major causal factors behind such an increase. The Dublin Simon Community, which was founded in 1969 by a group of Trinity and UCD students and works to prevent and address homelessness in Dublin, identifies poverty, housing shortages and the high cost of private rented accommodation as three of the major factors leading to homelessness.

Youth homelessness is frequently linked with these causes of adult homelessness which result in whole families being unable to find or afford appropriate accommodation. However, it is often the case that children are forced out alone from an unstable or abusive home.

The Health Service Executive’s Youth Homelessness Strategy identifies domestic violence, neglect and parental illness as several of the factors which cause a child to leave home. Drug and alcohol abuse as well as mental instability are also highlighted as key problems.

Research suggests that a lack of funding, combined with limited staffing in the voluntary sector is making it very difficult to tackle the fundamental problems of homelessness. Short-term solutions such as drop-in centres and soup kitchens, though invaluable, simply cannot address the problems faced by the lack of suitable and affordable accommodation.

Focus Ireland highlights the need for aftercare: “When the term in care ends, every effort should be made in helping the young person re-integrate into their community”.

Ineke Durville, president of the Irish Association of Social Care Workers, told The Irish Times that many of these children had very complex needs which require more support and structure. “This is about children’s lives. They are young for a very short period of time and they have to have their needs met or they will be damaged.”

Health authorities highlight that an emergency fostering service has been established to ensure accommodation can be sourced at any time of day and night yet for the quarter of homeless children under the age of 12 is this a likely or a viable solution? Lack of awareness or an inability to communicate is likely to prevent this option from being a working, immediate solution.