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Twenty-Five Years of Homelessness

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Twenty-Five Years of Homelessness

on Thursday, 31 July 2003. Posted in Issue 35 The Claims Industry and the Public Interest, 1999

Peter McVerry

June 1999

Then and Now

In 1974, I went to live and work in Summerhill, in Dublin\'s Inner City. In those days there was no such category as \'homeless children\'. There were a few children who frequently did not return home at night or who returned home only in the early hours of the morning, but they were so few in number that they did not constitute a separate problem category.

I think there are three reasons for that:

At that time, the sense of community was stronger and the extended family often lived in close proximity to each other. So a young person who was unable or unwilling to live at home frequently stayed with relatives or with neighbours in an informal sort of arrangement. Today, the extended family is scattered; a family in Ballymun might have their relatives living in Tallaght or Blanchardstown and the children rarely have contact with them. Going to live with relatives, in a totally different part of the city, is not a ready option. With the breakdown of community, a welcoming neighbour may not be an option either.

Secondly, the stresses on families today are much greater than they were twenty five years ago. For much of the last two decades, job insecurity and unemployment created pressures in families that some of them were unable to cope with. While this has eased in the past few years, there remains a stubborn, significant residue of long-term unemployed with few skills, which the modern economy is finding very difficult to assimilate. The pressures on children to succeed in school, the pressures from peer groups, and the opportunities for destructive behaviour, or escape routes such as drugs, are so much greater than in the past.

Thirdly the closure of major institutions, such as Daingean, Letterfrack, Scoile Ard Mhuire in Lusk, and in later years Madonna House, left many children, who would otherwise have ended up in one of these institutions, with no service at all. While we are now more aware of the sometimes appalling cruelty which was inflicted on children in these institutions and no one bemoans their passing, there was no attempt to replace the lost beds in smaller, more appropriate, child-centred units.

Changing Patterns of Homelessness

In the intervening twenty-five years, three changes in the problem of homeless children have been evident:

Firstly, it is clear that the numbers of homeless children have increased enormously. In spite of this, we have no firm data for the numbers of homeless children in the country. In Dublin, the Eastern Health Board Out-of-Hours service could provide some approximate indication of the numbers who are homeless over a period of time, but these figures are more closely guarded than the Ansbacher accounts. At a conservative estimate, no one will dispute a figure of some 400 children becoming homeless in the Dublin area each year. No one will dispute that the age of homeless children is getting younger and younger. The last published figures appeared in the Irish Times in the summer of 1997 (leading to a witch hunt within the Eastern Health Board as to how the figures got out!).

In 1996, there were 3,161 referrals to the Out-of-Hour service (some of these would be referrals of the same people). In the first six months of 1997, there were 1,599 referrals, of whom two-thirds were unable to be given accommodation. In June 1997, there were 300 referrals, an increase of almost 40% on June 1996. On average, 14 children were presenting each night, seeking accommodation (while only 8 beds were available), with as many as 17 on some nights.

The situation may have changed substantially since then, as fewer children are presenting to the Out-of-Hours service, according to the E.H.B. But, in the absence of any statistics or analysis as to why there are fewer referrals, no conclusions can be drawn.

The problem of collecting accurate figures for homelessness is increased by the ease of access which young people have to the boat for London or Manchester. Many homeless young people, particularly those from smaller cities and towns, believe, sometimes correctly, that accommodation, financial and drug treatment services in London, and other English cities with a large Irish community, are much easier to access than in Ireland.

Secondly, the number of homeless girls has increased. Up to four or five years ago, the number of homeless girls was small in comparison with boys. Today, the figure is 50% of the total. This has not been matched by a corresponding increase in accommodation for girls. There are only two hostels for girls (along with two mixed hostels) as against about twelve hostels for boys. Because the options for girls are so limited, many girls find the hostels available unsuited to their needs and are reluctant to go to them.

Thirdly, the reason for young people becoming homeless has changed. Twenty-five years ago, young people who did not live at home almost invariably came from very dysfunctional families - families with alcohol problems, parents who didn\'t care, parents who were heavily involved in crime and who involved their children in crime. Today, such dysfunctional families are still a cause of homelessness but, increasingly, homeless children come from families where the parent(s) are caring, worried and concerned. Something has happened in the relationship between the parents and the child. This relationship begins to break down, perhaps in the difficult adolescent years when the child acts up and the parents are unable to understand or cope with what is normal adolescent rebellious behaviour. If not dealt with at an early stage in the crisis, this deterioration can continue to develop and eventually result in homelessness. In many such cases, there is no blame attached to the parents; they are doing their best, are just as worried about what is happening as the child may be, but are unable, with their own resources, to remedy the situation. This change is important to record, as there is a stigma attached to being the parents of a homeless child: they are considered to be \'bad\' parents, uncaring, often alcoholic, not interested in their child\'s welfare. In many cases this is simply not true.

Changes in the Provision of Care

The introduction of the Child Care Act in 1991 is perhaps the single biggest improvement in the situation of homeless children. This act obliges the Health Boards to provide care and accommodation for all homeless children in their areas. It also extends the responsibility of the Health Boards to provide for young people up to the age of 18 years, rather than up to 16 which was the upper age limit prior to this. This Act was an attempt to update existing legislation in relation to children which until then was governed by the 1908 Children\'s Act and was hopelessly out of date. In Britain, this 1908 Act has been updated at least a dozen times in the past twenty or thirty years. It is a measure of the small importance which we attach to children that it was not until 1991 (over twenty years since a Government commissioned report recommended it) that our first attempt to update the legislation took place. Another Act, The Children\'s Bill, intended to update the sections of the 1908 Act in relation to young people and the criminal law, is still not even in sight! Ironically, however, while homeless children now have a right in law to accommodation and care, there have never been more homeless children living on the streets. There are several reasons for this contradiction.

Although the responsibility for homeless children was imposed by law on the Health Boards, they were not given the resources to adequately implement the law. Hence the past few years have seen many lawyers getting rich as a succession of children went to the High Court to get their rights acknowledged. Last year, some £2 million in legal fees was spent by the Dept. of Health in defending such High Court cases. Almost invariably, the State still lost the case! The Health Boards did not have sufficient accommodation available to them, nor the resources to provide more. What they had was hopelessly inadequate for the numbers of homeless children looking for somewhere to stay. There was a particular problem with the 16 and 17 year olds, as these age groups were a new responsibility for the Health Boards and services for them were almost non-existent. Although there has been an increase in the level of services in recent years, the available suitable accommodation still does not meet the demand. The 16 and 17 year olds are still badly served, as the Health Boards, in allocating scarce resources, naturally give priority to younger children. Of course media publicity about a 13 year old living on the streets is more embarrassing to the Health Boards than a 17 year old so doing.

A further problem was revealed even before the Child Care Act was signed into law in 1994. A number of homeless children, even when offered accommodation, ran away and refused to return to the hostel. These children were often very damaged, unused to structures or limits, and found the hostel regime too demanding. In the High Court, the Health Board argued, with good reason, that they could not provide a service for these children if they would not stay long enough to avail of the service provided. In effect, in order to help these children, they would need to be detained against their will and the Health Boards did not have the power to detain them. In other words, the Health Boards argued, correctly, that while they had the legal responsibility to provide care and accommodation for these children, they did not have the powers to fulfil this responsibility.

To correct this anomaly, the High Court ordered the Health Boards to provide what are called \'High Support Units\', in effect detention centres for homeless children who have not been committed by the courts for criminal offences, and to which children could only be sent by the High Court, for their own welfare. While there are two small \'High Support Units\' in existence at present, it will not be until the year 2002 that a further 48 beds, which is the current estimate of the extent of the problem, will be available. In the meantime, these children more or less fend for themselves. In the past twelve months, three children have been sent to prison for their own safety and welfare, without having committed any offence, and one such child was being considered for the Central Mental Hospital, because no suitable accommodation was available. An amendment to the Child Care Act to remedy this anomaly and allow the Health Boards to send children to \'High Support Units\' without the expensive recourse to the High Court, is currently being considered. The problem has been further complicated in recent years by the growing number of homeless children who have a serious drug problem and who cannot be accommodated in hostels which have neither the resources not the training to deal with drug-related issues.

The Lack of Co-ordination

In the response to homelessness among young people, a lack of co-ordination exists on many fronts.

The lack of co-ordination between hostels, almost all of which are run by religious or voluntary organisations, makes the allocation of suitable accommodation particularly difficult. Different hostels have different criteria for admission: some admit only 12 to 16 year olds, some admit only 14 to 18 year olds, some admit only 16 to 17 year olds, some require all the young people to be in full-time education, some require them to be in employment or training courses, some require them to be completely drug-free. For the harassed social worker, trying to search out a place for a homeless child, the field is very confusing. Having found what she thinks is the suitable location, she frequently finds that there are no places available!

The division of responsibility for children in general between the Departments of Health, Education and Justice has also ensured that children did not get the service they required. For example, a homeless child might commit some petty offence and appear in the Children\'s Court. The Judge, concerned at where the young person would live if released on bail, would frequently request their social worker to attend. The social worker, on legal advice, would refuse to assist the court on the grounds that the court should only be concerned with the criminal offence before it and that its responsibility was confined to the determination of guilt or innocence and if guilty, imposing an appropriate penalty. The question of where the child would live was not its responsibility. In this case, the court was powerless to proceed further with the question of the child\'s welfare, as technically the social worker was correct. Frequently, the child was remanded in custody as the only alternative available to the streets and, if eventually found guilty, the court often refused to make any order, in sheer exasperation at its inability to deal adequately with the welfare of the child, and the child would be released back to the streets. In this case, the child becomes the responsibility of three different government departments all in the one day, that of the Dept. of Education in the detention centre; that of the Dept. of Justice on being brought to the Children\'s Court; that of the Dept. of Health on being released by the Court in the afternoon onto the streets. In one memorable High Court case, I actually observed and overheard officials from the Departments Of Health and Education fighting over which of their respective departments had responsibility for the child in question.

The failure of the Health Boards to adequately provide for homeless children has led to their criminalisation. One of the first children I dealt with, who was living on the streets and involved in prostitution, appeared in the Children\'s Court charged with criminal damage to a post box. damage to the value of £2 Normally, the charge would have been dismissed under the Probation Act. However, because the child was at risk, he was remanded in custody for his own protection. Eventually, the child was sentenced to two years in Trinity House, a detention centre of children under 16, as it was clear that any other decision was going to leave him on the streets and at risk. This involvement of the criminal justice system to safeguard homeless children has been a necessary but unfortunate development. A former director of Trinity House has stated that one third of the children detained there were effectively homeless children who should not be there.

Related to this problem of the division of responsibility is the problem in relation to a child reaching the age of 18. The Health Boards have responsibility for young people up to the age of 18; after that, their accommodation becomes the responsibility of the Local Authority. In fairness to the Health Boards, they do not discard young people on their 18th birthday; it is now recognised that few young people are ready to live independently at the age of 18 and many hostels would keep young people until they are 19, 20 or even longer. The problem arises where a young person has not secured a long-term placement by the time they reach 18 years, or if they leave the placement they already have secured. In these cases, the Out-of-Hours service is no longer available to them, social workers no longer have an obligation to work with them (although some will). These young people are then dependent on the adult homeless services, which are totally inappropriate for a young person of 18 years. So a young person on 10th June can get accommodation through the Out-of-Hours service in a hostel with other young people of his age; on 11th June, having turned 18 years of age, they have to take their chances in an adult hostel. But their need for support and care and security remain the same as the day before! This transition to a whole different set of structures is very confusing and upsetting for young people. The young people, whom this affects most, are frequently the more damaged and difficult young people who were unable to secure a long-term placement before their 18th birthday.

The Emergency Service

Another major development, already alluded to, that took place in the Dublin area, was the provision of an overnight social work service (called the Out-of-Hours service) for homeless children. This arose from the frustration of voluntary bodies who would encounter homeless children after the social workers had gone home in the evening, or at weekends, and were powerless to help them. Voluntary bodies did not have the resources to go out to the family of the children to discuss the child\'s situation and did not have the right to place a child in accommodation if the parents, no matter how unreasonably, refused to allow the child to be so placed. The provision of an overnight and weekend service for homeless children was an issue that was heatedly discussed in a series of meetings between the Eastern Health Board and the voluntary bodies, which were organised by the then Minister of State at the Department of Health, Chris Flood. (These valuable meetings have long since been abandoned!). As a result of these meetings, the Minister ordered the Eastern Health Board to provide such a service, which did not endear him to the Health Board!

Children who find themselves on the streets, after hours, with no place to go can go to any Garda Station after 8pm and ask the Gardai to phone the social worker who is on duty until 5am the next morning. The social worker will interview the child, and if possible visit the parents to assess the situation. If the child cannot return home, then in theory the social worker will bring them to a hostel where a bed will be available for the night. The following morning at 10am they will leave the hostel where they had spent the night and see their own social worker who will provide them with more permanent accommodation.

However, there are a number of difficulties with this service:

Many homeless children will not go near a Garda Station. Many have already had bad experiences of the gardai and would be unwilling to approach a garda for help. These children would prefer to sleep rough than to go to a garda station. While the issue of security for the social worker on duty is an important one, nevertheless the refusal of the service to consider any other option beside a garda station is a serious obstacle for children. Focus Point, or one of the existing hostels, would provide adequate protection for a social worker and would be a more comfortable and attractive place for homeless children to wait.

Sometimes, a homeless child who goes to a garda station has a bad experience. I am personally aware of Gardai who have told a young child that they will have to wait outside the Garda Station, even though it was bitterly cold and raining. If there are a lot of calls on the social worker before this particular child phoned in, the child could be waiting for three or four hours for the social worker to get around to their case. In other cases, the Garda on duty at 8pm has told the child to come back at 10pm. The Garda shift changes at 10pm and the garda on duty simply didn\'t want the bother of looking after the child. But the children now know that there is often little point in coming back at 10pm as the beds available will be all filled by then. In other cases, the gardai may already have had ten or twelve children calling to the garda station and they are pretty fed up "baby-sitting", so their patience has run out and they can be, understandably, a little testy. However, such experiences ensure that the child is unlikely to return another night. It must be stated, however, that many of the Gardai are sympathetic and more than willing to help.

There are only eight beds available to the social worker on duty. In the past, there may have been 16 to 20 children looking for a bed for the night. After the beds have been filled, the social worker can only tell the child to sleep in the garda station for the night (if the gardai allow them) or to sleep on the streets. A child who goes to the garda station two or three nights in a row and is told each night that the beds are all filled is not going to go back again to look for a bed. This is the most worrying aspect of the problem, that some homeless children simply go underground and have given up seeking a bed because they so frequently fail to get one.

Because there are long waiting lists for places in long-term hostels, a homeless child may have to seek a bed from the emergency service for months on end. This means each night going to the Garda Station at 8pm, waiting often for hours for the social worker wondering if a bed will be available, and if so, leaving the hostel next morning at 10am. During the day, they must walk the streets with nothing to do and they receive £35 per week to provide all their meals, bus-fares, and other needs. This may continue for months until a place becomes available.

While the idea of an emergency service at night and weekends is an excellent initiative, the way in which the present service is structured is guaranteed to put children off. It ensures that the numbers of children presenting themselves as homeless is significantly less than the number who are actually homeless. And outside Dublin, there is no emergency after hours service at all.

Towards a Solution

A recent major development has been the establishment of a Forum for youth homelessness, involving all the relevant statutory bodies and many of the voluntary bodies and consulting widely with service providers and homeless young people themselves. The purpose of this Forum is to produce a report, which will identify the main issues in the area of homeless children and make recommendations, which it is hoped the relevant statutory bodies will accept and implement, and which the relevant voluntary bodies will agree to. This Forum is due to present its final report by Christmas 1999. In the meantime the following observations may be of relevance.

Homelessness is not an event which happens on a certain day or month; it is a process that may span many years. The process begins with difficulties in relationships within the family; these escalate until the situation becomes intolerable for either the parents or the child; the child may begin a pattern of leaving home for a while and then returning. This \'in and out\' pattern may continue for several years until eventually the child leaves home and decides not to return. Intervention at any stage in the process may well prevent the final outcome.

Hence the following stages are involved in dealing with the problem:

1. Early intervention: 
2. Assessment of child\'s situation 
3. Placement in a residential or foster care situation.

1. Early intervention: A range of preventative services are required, particularly in deprived areas, which can intervene and support families at the early signs of difficulties occurring. These services could include family therapy, parent support groups, counselling, crèches, pre-school programmes etc. The objective is to provide support and professional help as early as possible and to make such programmes readily available to all who wish to use them, with minimum waiting lists. The Health Boards recognise the importance of such programmes in reducing the incidence of homelessness in the future but, being financially constrained, are often placed in the dilemma of having to choose between providing residential accommodation for young people currently on the streets, or abandoning those children in order to provide preventative services which would reduce homelessness in the future.

2. Assessment of child\'s situation: If early intervention fails, and the child runs away from home or is put out of the home, then an assessment of the child\'s situation and future options has to be done. This will probably require short term accommodation where the young person can live while the assessment is being carried out. This short-term accommodation could be in a residential hostel, in short-term foster care or with emergency carers. This should normally not require more than a couple of days and involves talking to the child, the family and perhaps other agencies that have been involved with the family. The outcome of the assessment is a decision that the child return home, be placed in foster care or residential care or be placed with the extended family.

3. Long-term placement: If the situation at home is such that it is not desirable or feasible for the child to return home, then the child must be placed somewhere else. Normally, if a suitable place is available with one of the extended family, then that option would be preferable. Failing that, the child will either be placed in long-term foster care or residential care where he/she can live until they are able to live independently.


In the ideal world, each family would have ready access to a range of preventative programmes that would support and help the family to deal with difficulties that arise. If these are unable to prevent the crisis which results in the child leaving home, then the child should normally be able to continue living in the area in which he/she has grown up, where their friends live, where they go to school and where their support structure exists. Most homeless children come from a limited number of Local Authority areas, where incomes may be low, unemployment high and support services overstretched and few in number, as for example in Dublin, Tallaght, Clondalkin, Blanchardstown, Inner City, Ballymun. At present, in almost all these areas, accommodation for homeless children is non-existent or inadequate and children have to migrate to the city centre in order to find accommodation and support. This uproots these young people from whatever support structures existed for them in their area of residence and leads them into an undesirable sub-culture in which crime, drugs and prostitution pose serious risks for them. Thus in each of these Local Authority areas, a reception area and short-term accommodation needs to be provided, where assessment can be carried out, and long-term accommodation provided if required. This involves both the provision of residential care in small units in the area and the use of local families as foster carers. In larger areas, such as Tallaght, a substantial number of residential units might be required.

The provision of such a range of services is a long-term objective; they cannot be provided overnight. So how do we get from here to there? I believe that we need to define what is not acceptable in relation to homeless children, a bottom line as it were, and seek to eliminate that in the first instance. What is not acceptable today is that children should have to live on the streets. A night shelter, which would be open to all young people who require it and wish to use it, within a short distance of the city centre should be opened immediately. A night shelter is not the answer to a homeless child\'s problem, as it does not address their many other needs. But it meets the most basic needs, somewhere to sleep and something to eat. Following that, the \'bottom line\' can be moved up and other issues tackled, such as the fact that homeless children have nothing to do all day, that some need long-term care and accommodation, and finally that they need it in their own area.

While the provision of adequate services for homeless children is a complex and detailed problem, there are many obvious improvements which could be made, if the political will were present.

We tend to think that law defines what crime is. This makes sense because contemporary legal codes are concerned with marking out the territory where conduct is permissible by specifying the conduct that is outlawed. Yet the earliest bodies of law – consider for example, the Torah or Hammurabi’s Code – are at least as committed to articulating the good as proscribing the bad... Read full editorial

Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.