Focus Ireland Launches New Campaign to require Local Authorities to take ‘Best Interests of the Child’ into account when working with families who present as homeless

Campaign launched as nearly 3,500 children are now homeless as the crisis deepens

Focus Ireland launched a new campaign today to try to help efforts to get to grips with the deepening homelessness crisis as nearly 3,500 children are now homeless. 

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 said the aim of the campaign is to require Local Authorities to prioritise the ‘best interests of the child’ during the ongoing housing and homelessness crisis. The charity stressed that Local Authority staff nationwide are working extremely hard to deal with this crisis, but they need more direction, training, and support. 

The campaign calls for the reintroduction and passing into law of the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017, a piece of private members legislation introduced into the Dail 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.  

The legislation was supported by all parties – including the current Minister Darragh O’Brien, when he was opposition spokesperson – and reached Committee Stage before falling with the dissolution of that Dail. If passed into legislation it would ensure that the best interest of the child is seen as paramount, and it would ensure that every child would become “rights holders” and their needs assessed.  

Speaking at a press conference at the Davenport Hotel in Dublin Focus Ireland Director of Advocacy Mike Allen said: “We know that homelessness has a devastating impact on children’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Every child has the right to a safe and stable home, but shamefully 3,472 children are homeless and living in emergency accommodation. This is unacceptable, and we are calling on the government to put the best interests of the child at the heart of its housing policies.”  

Mr. Allen explains: “Under the current legislation governing local authorities, children have no official rights. The existing legislation is 35 years old and reflects a world in which homelessness was something that happened to single adult men. The law does not reflect the reality of our current crisis and it does not reflect the sentiment of the Irish people who passed the Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Act in 2012, amending the Constitution by inserting clauses relating to children’s rights and the right and duty of the state to take child protection measures.”   

Focus Ireland said that, if the campaign is successful, it would mean that local authorities would have to assess the needs of children in homeless families as part of their decision-making process. For instance, because of emergency accommodation shortage, local authorities increasingly pressurize families to stay with friends and family without assessing whether that accommodation is suitable or safe. 

This legislation would require all local authorities to assess the suitability of alternative accommodation when they decline to offer emergency accommodation. The legislation would also require the local authorities to ensure that the emergency accommodation that they commission meets the best of interests of children, including such issues as access to schools, the need for child support workers, homework and play areas, etc. Some local authorities already make great efforts in these areas, but others do not. 

If local authorities fail to consider these issues, they will be open to legal challenge, so this requirement will encourage them to improve the training and resources available to their staff and to have clearer guidelines and processes. 

“We want to be clear that that proposed legislation is not designed to solve the homeless crisis from families – for that we need a massively increased supply of affordable housing – but it is designed to reduce the trauma and terrible harm that homelessness can cause to children. When it decided not to extend the eviction band, the Government signalled that it is prepared to tolerate very high levels of homelessness, if that is the strategy that it has decided on it must also ensure that it puts in place measures to protect children from the worse impacts of homelessness. 

Meanwhile, Karen Kiernan, CEO of One Family and Julie Ahern, Director of Legal, Policy and Services of the Children’s Rights Alliance also spoke at the event. 

One Family CEO Karen Kiernan outlined her concerns as she said: “Lone parent households are disproportionately at risk of homelessness, and they also find the reality of living in emergency accommodation much more difficult, as there is only one adult to mind children, source new housing and travel with children to school. If successful, the legislation would benefit children by ensuring that local authorities prioritise their best interests when making decisions about housing. This would mean that children should be accommodated as close to their school as possible and to their support networks.”  

Julie Ahern, from Childrens Rights Alliance said: “The Government is failing to meet the need for children and young people to have access to safe and affordable housing. So, at the very least, the Government should be ensuring that decisions being made to address child and family homelessness are being made in the best interest of the child. Home means so much more than just the four walls around a child. Access to education, the ability to socialise and build relationships with friends, integrating into a community – these connections are essential for a child’s development and wellbeing, and these become near impossible for so many children experiencing homelessness. We now have almost three and a half thousand children, and families making extraordinary journeys and going to extraordinary lengths to maintain a normal and happy childhood. It is high time for Government act with the urgency this crisis demands.” 

Focus Ireland is asking people to support this campaign by signing an online petition and are asking all TDs to support this Bill when it gets reintroduced.

Sign the petition

Media Contact: Roughan Mac Namara – Head of Media Communications, Focus Ireland – 086 85 15 117 

+ Click to view more