I thank the Chairman. I thank the committee for inviting me here today to discuss the impact of homelessness on children.
As members of the committee know, the Ombudsman for Children's Office is an independent statutory body, which was established under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. We have two statutory functions, namely, to promote the rights and welfare of children under 18 years of age; and to examine and investigate complaints made by or on behalf of children about the administrative actions of public bodies, schools or voluntary hospitals.
The rights and welfare of children experiencing homelessness has been a strategic priority for my office since 2016 and will remain so as part of our new strategic plan up to 2021. As members of the committee know, there has been a steady increase in the number of families experiencing homelessness in Ireland in recent years. According to the most recent monthly homelessness report from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, in April there were 1,729 families with 3,794 children accessing local authority managed emergency accommodation. A total of 75% of those families were in Dublin while 25% were spread across the rest of the country. Lone parents represented more than half of the families, 58%, accessing emergency accommodation in April 2019, reminding us of their risk of homelessness. Other types of families at higher risk include young parents aged 18 to 24 and families with four or more children.
A majority of families with children who present as homeless are still being provided with emergency accommodation in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. Similarly, the practice of self-accommodation continues to operate in certain circumstances. I am very concerned about the impact of that and that there do not appear to be clear timelines in place for bringing an end to these practices.
As members of the committee know, the development of family hubs emerged in 2017 as an alternative to hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation to provide for the emergency, temporary accommodation needs of homeless families. While hubs may be preferable to hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation, they have developed in the absence of an evidence base, without an initial pilot phase or any clear public policy objectives for their use. There are currently 27 family hubs in operation nationally providing 650 units of accommodation and my understanding is that further hubs are being developed.
In light of how family hubs emerged and are being developed further, we wanted to learn more about what it is like for children to live within those family hubs. Between October 2018 and January 2019, we undertook a consultation with 37 children between the ages of five and 17 years of age and 33 parents of 43 children under five years of age who were living in eight different family hubs. I would like to use the remaining time available to me to briefly highlight a number of the issues and recommendations contained in our report No Place Like Home, which we produced in April 2019 to highlight the views and experiences of those children living in family hubs.
Through our consultation, children and parents told us about what they liked about living in the family hubs, what they found challenging about it and the changes they would like to see made. As regards the positives, younger children spoke about making friends. Those who had access to outdoor play space and child support workers spoke very positively about those aspects. However, several younger children could not identify anything positive about living in a family hub, with some children simply saying there was nothing positive about it. Thirteen to 17 year olds were positive about the support provided by staff in the hubs. Where provided, facilities such as computers, a TV room and a study room were regarded as positives. Some older children regarded living in a family hub as comparatively better to where they had been previously, which may have been overcrowded family accommodation or hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. Parents of children under five years of age welcomed the relative security and stability provided by hubs. They also spoke about the support of the staff in those hubs. Where provided, the good facilities and activities for their children and access to a child support worker were also highlighted as positives.
No Place Like Home also highlights the accounts of children and parents of the negative impact that living in this type of environment is having on family life; parenting; individual and family privacy; children’s ability to get adequate rest and sleep; children’s health, well-being and development; children’s ability to learn and study; children’s opportunities for play; children’s exposure to aggression and fighting; children’s freedom of movement; and children’s ability to maintain relationships with extended family and friends. It is not surprising, therefore, that the children we met frequently expressed feelings of sadness, confusion and anger.
One of the most concerning features of the perspectives shared by children is the consistency with which they referenced feeling ashamed about being homeless and living in family hubs. Similarly, parents consistently spoke about feeling that they had failed in their role as parents. Such feelings of shame and failure underscore the corrosive impact that homelessness can have on people’s sense of their own dignity and worth.
As such, the accounts of these children and parents recall the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, who has characterised homelessness as a violation of human rights because the lived experience of homelessness "challenges the very core of what it means to be human, assaulting dignity and threatening life itself".
We have identified a number of priorities for action which were outlined in No Place Like Home. Among those priorities are the following - timelines need to be put in place for ending the practices of self-accommodation and providing emergency accommodation to families via hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation; an independent, formal evaluation of the suitability of family hubs as an approach to providing emergency, temporary accommodation needs to be undertaken; and additional measures are needed to combat the stigma associated with family homelessness and to support the dignity, self-worth and resilience of children and parents experiencing homelessness. Practical measures that need to be considered include increasing the number of child support workers, therapeutic supports and family support services available to children and parents living in emergency accommodation.
We welcome the indications that the National Quality Standards Framework for Homeless Services in Ireland, NQSF, will be introduced nationally over a 12-month period from 1 July 2019. However, we are concerned that there do not appear to be any plans to put in place independent statutory inspection of those homelessness services.
Existing primary legislation needs to be amended and strengthened to make children visible and to require housing authorities to provide appropriate accommodation and supports to homeless families with children.
The issue of enumerating the right to housing in the Constitution needs to be progressed as a priority. We would like the Oireachtas to proceed with a detailed examination of the recommendations contained in the Eighth Report of the Convention on the Constitution without further delay.
Following the publication of No Place Like Home, I had a constructive meeting with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. I have also written to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to ask her to give serious consideration to increasing the practical supports, including child support workers and family support services, available to children and parents living in emergency accommodation, including family hubs.
I am deeply concerned about the immediate and longer-term impact that the trauma of homelessness has on children and their families, therefore, I welcome this committee’s decision to examine the impact of homelessness on children. I am happy to take questions if I can be of further assistance.