Gap is harder to bridge for homeless children

With the publication, today of ‘Home Works’, a study examining the impact of homelessness on children, Geraldine Scanlon and Grainne McKenna explain some of their findings.

Children are the fastest-growing group in the homeless population of Ireland. Last week, the Department of Housing, Planning, and Local Government released its May 2018 figures, recording a total of 1,724 families with 3,826 dependent children officially recorded as homeless.

While the majority of homeless families are located within the greater Dublin region, the crisis has extended beyond the capital and rates of family homelessness outside the Dublin region have more than doubled in one year, increasing from 165 families in January 2017 to 386 families in May 2018.

We know that early childhood settings and schools across Ireland are supporting children who are experiencing homelessness to engage in education and participate fully in school life.

In October 2017, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) reported that children who experience homelessness struggle in school and their teachers struggle to help them cope.

Despite the increasing numbers, the INTO states there is “no support for hard-pressed teachers, no advice, no guidance, and no additional resources”.

While the latest statistics indicate the alarming extent of the crisis, little is known about the daily lives of these children. Last year, the Children’s Rights Alliance commissioned us to carry out a study to explore the effects and potential impact of homelessness on children and specifically focus on their ability to access and participate in education.

Yesterday, we launched that report, entitled ‘Home Works’. We looked at the experiences of children experiencing homelessness from the perspective of their parents and teachers.

We met 20 parents living in emergency accommodation with their 38 children. They described how living in a hotel or a B&B affected their children’s access to education, school attendance, academic achievement, social participation, and overall participation in their school communities.

We found that the children at the heart of our research experience a unique set of challenges and difficulties that impact on their health, well-being, and social development.

School was not only seen as a place of learning but had become a place of safety, routine, and predictability. However, poor attendance and placement in accommodation far from the school was found to impact on children’s academic achievement and social relationships.

In some cases, this was found to result in the breakdown of important, protective relationships for pupils leading to social isolation and behavioural problems.

We heard directly from those working in schools and unsurprisingly there is a consistency between the educational professionals and the parent’s perceptions of education-related needs. Clearly children experiencing homelessness cannot meaningfully engage and participate in education and learning if their basic needs are not satisfied.

Children’s requirements for secure shelter, sufficient sleep, personal care, and an adequately nutritious diet emerged as the most significant areas of need which in turn impacted on their education.

Children that are homeless in Ireland are experiencing exhaustion, hunger, and increased susceptibility to illness because of poor living conditions and long journeys to and from school.

Attending the same school or pre-school with the same teachers and staff can provide children with a sense of routine and predictability.

Parents recognise how important this is for their children so they make every effort to get their child to school. As with all children, it is the friendships at school, warm teacher-child relationships, and a sense of belonging within their wider school-community that matter.

Children were found to have positive relationships with teachers and their peers; however, parents and educational professionals described how disruption to children’s lives and instability arising from homelessness negatively impacted on children’s capacity for learning and ability to develop and retain relationships with peers and staff in the school setting.

The parents that participated in the study indicated that their children have positive attitudes towards schooling; they take pleasure in academic progress and value praise and encouragement from their teachers. Educational professionals and teachers affirmed children’s motivation and interest but noted that irregular attendance and difficulty negatively impacted children’s enthusiasm and engagement and aspects of academic attainment.

We concluded that children experiencing homelessness are subject to multiple levels of disadvantage, including poverty and social exclusion.

Taken together with their homeless status, these children have a unique set of additional needs, and their basic needs must be met before they can fully engage and participate in education.

When children are not afforded asecure and stable home, they are denied the opportunity for academic achievement and positive experiences that develop their personality, talents, and abilities to their fullest potential. This loss extends across the lifespan, impacting on their health, well-being, social relationships, and occupational success in adulthood.

Failure to respect, protect and fulfil the development and participation rights of homeless children falls short of the State’s legal commitments to children and impedes efforts to create a fair and equitable society for all.

Dr Geraldine Scanlon and Grainne McKenna, DCU Institute of Education,carried out the study on behalf of the Children’s Rights Alliance.

The report is available to download here.

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