Children without a Home in Ireland Face Unacceptable Risk of Harm

Published: 29.01.2019


Temple Street Children’s Hospital recently released figures which highlighted the increased numbers of children being discharged from the hospital to ‘no fixed abode’. In this blog post, Research Coordinator Sarah Sheridan explores the short-term risks to children who are experiencing homelessness in Ireland.

Last Monday 21st January, Temple Street Children’s Hospital confirmed that during 2018, 842 children were discharged from hospital with ‘no fixed home address’. This figure is up an alarming 29% since 2017 and equates to an average of 70 families per month.

The hospital cited that 85% of these 842 children presented with medical complaints, including abdominal pain, high temperature, chest infections, asthma, seizures, and vomiting, while 23% of presentations were due to trauma including hand and arm injuries, head laceration, burns and self-harm.

Temple Street Hospital’s Lead Emergency Medicine Consultant Dr IK Okafor confirmed that “presentations are varied and complex but in the majority they stem from the fact that these children are living in completely unsuitable, cramped and temporary accommodation.”

“presentations are varied and complex but in the majority they stem from the fact that these children are living in completely unsuitable, cramped and temporary accommodation.”

The hospital’s definition of ‘no fixed abode’ refers not only to children living in homeless emergency accommodation but also includes those temporarily doubling up with friends or family in overcrowded and unsuitable living conditions. The inclusion of families in ‘hidden homeless’ situations helpful here, as it not only highlights the parallel issues which can emerge when living in either emergency and overcrowded accommodation but it also gives a sense of the scale of housing deprivation for an increasing number of families in our society.

Risk to Children

Temple Street statistics starkly highlights the exceptional risk facing children of all ages for ill health, injury, and spread of infection in cramped or communal living conditions. Indeed, parents’ capacity to treat an illness of a child can be compromised when homeless, with some missing medical appointments or letters due to frequently changing accommodation.

The hospital cited an example where a child requiring surgery attended Temple Street ED and the child’s siblings, parents and extended family were all in hospital waiting area as they nowhere else to go until a hotel room was made available for them at 11pm that night.

The hospital cited an example where a child requiring surgery attended Temple Street ED and the child’s siblings, parents and extended family were all in hospital waiting area as they nowhere else to go until a hotel room was made available for them at 11pm that night.

There are parallels between Temple Street data and Focus Ireland research on food access and nutritional health among families in emergency accommodation, published in 2017.  The study by Dr Michelle Share and Marita Hennessy highlighted the severe challenges and daily constraints families must navigate when living in emergency accommodation and the associated risks to child safety.

Improvised cooking techniques, perilous kitchen appliances in bedroom spaces, parents carrying children up and down stairs to access shared kitchens, lack of hygienic food storage, and other daily hazards can make children far more vulnerable to accidents. The researchers documented how all parents expressed “deep concern” about their children’s safety and well-being (P.67).

While Share and Hennessy’s research focuses on families in hotels, research by Maynooth researchers Hearne and Murphy (2017) showed that also in ‘Family Hubs’ – which are widely viewed as preferable to hotel accommodation in terms of facilities available to families – can “both institutionalise and reduce the functioning capacity of families” (p.32). Furthermore, there are significant variations in terms of standards and facilities across the expanding number of ‘Family Hubs’.

Scale of Impact Unknown

In truth, we don’t yet know the long-term impact of homelessness on children who are living in emergency accommodation or hidden homelessness situations across our towns and cities in Ireland. Nor do we know how living in inadequate and overcrowded housing can determine children’s life chances. Longitudinal data collected over time is needed for this.

What we do know from both research and from those working directly with families, however, is that children are currently experiencing unacceptable risk of harm to their health. This includes compromised nutritional practices, sleep deprivation, developmental delays, lack of space, higher risk of infection diseases, risk of injury, worsening respiratory problems, poor pre-natal health, emotional and behavioural problems, parental stress, anxiety and depression – and very often several of these risk factors. And importantly, this harm is occurring across a spectrum of unstable living situationsnot just in hotel accommodation.

What we do know from both research and from those working directly with families, however, is that children are currently experiencing unacceptable risk of harm to their health.

All children who have fallen victim to the current housing crisis in Ireland must navigate unacceptable levels of risk to harm, on a daily basis. Targeted homelessness prevention initiatives and long-term housing is the only way to truly safeguard their health and welfare, while any support needs which may have arisen as a result of homelessness, must be effectively catered to.

Focus Ireland will hold a half-day seminar on meeting the therapeutic needs for children in emergency accommodation in the coming months. Email Research Coordinator Sarah.Sheridan@focusireland.ie for more information.

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Tags: Family Homelessness, Health, Impacts

Author: Sarah Sheridan

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