A new report has detailed how families with children, including new-borns and those with life-threatening illnesses, have been existing in one night only accommodation due to the homeless crisis.
The Report on the Lived Experiences of Homeless Families by the Mercy Law Resource Centre, an independent law centre and registered charity, found that they had to intervene on behalf of clients in the most desperate circumstances, including a family with a child who could not store medication for their sick child for six weeks because they had no access to a fridge, and a mother-of-six discharged back into one night only accommodation with a baby in a situation described by her doctor as "completely unacceptable".
The MLRC provides free legal advice and representation for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, as well as others services and the organisation said its report comes at a time of "desperate crisis". Last year the number of families it worked with doubled compared with the figure for 2017.
Last October the number of people homeless in Ireland reached 10,514 - a record high - and the MLRC said the figure did not include others caught up in the crisis, such as those in refuges, those sleeping rough and people removed from the homeless statistics following a reclassification undertaken in 2018.
"Families also appear to be spending longer periods in emergency homeless accommodation and there are increasing numbers of families who are homeless for 24 months or more," it said.
"In 2017, MLRC engaged with 221 families experiencing homelessness. In 2018, MLRC engaged with 452 families experiencing homelessness. As of November 2019, 52% of MLRC’s current clients are families with minor children who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. MLRC also acts for a disproportionate number of families of ethnic minority, including Traveller and Roma ethnicities."
It listed a number of serious issues that it said needed to be addressed, including families who have been refused emergency accommodation.
"One client of MLRC and her family were refused emergency accommodation by the local authority on the basis that they were intentionally homeless," it said. "The family was also barred from accessing the night by night provision of emergency accommodation, which is ordinarily available to families in crisis who are at risk of rough sleeping." One of the children had epilepsy, it said, with the risk of elevated seizures due to the family sleeping on a living room floor. The report said the MLRC resolved the case after six weeks and the family was able to access emergency accommodation.
"Another client, a single mother with a 7-year-old child, was refused emergency accommodation on the basis that she could stay with family and friends," the report said. Despite a judicial review, the High Court deigned not to order the local authority to provide accommodation.
According to the report: "It is clear that the current system governing the provision of emergency accommodation imposes little to no accountability on local authorities when making decisions regarding the provision of such accommodation to homeless families."
Another issue was the provision of 'one night only' accommodation, stating: "In May 2019, 46 families were on one night only accommodation, however by October 2019 this had increased to 72 families." Those families cannot access the accommodation ordinarily until 8pm in the evening and must leave by 9.30am, with the charity noting that "a disproportionate number of families of ethnic minority background are impacted and placed on one night only provision."
The report also refers to a failure to provide pathway and supports to more stable accommodation, the failure of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive and local authorities to communicate effectively with each other, often causing confusion for families, and a failure by those bodies to appreciate the adverse impact of accommodation on a night by night basis only.
According to the report: "In a recent case taken by MLRC, a client was unable to register her four children for school due to the chronic instability of the night to night accommodation in which she was living."
One family had been on one night only emergency accommodation with five children for eight months, when the mother gave birth to a sixth child. The mother and her new born baby were discharged from the maternity hospital back into one night only emergency accommodation with the family. A supporting letter from a doctor said this was "completely unacceptable", adding:
"it is impossible to adequately care for six children including a baby in such circumstances.”
Another family who have a child with a life-threatening illness were also placed in one night only accommodation. The child went untreated for six weeks as they had no access to a fridge to store medication. Another family with a child with autism was also in one night only accommodation for an extended period.
The report also focussed on the failure of the ‘self-accommodation option’ of emergency accommodation to meet the needs of families, including ensuring school attendance. One family in emergency accommodation faced a daily 90km roundtrip with two tolls to get their youngest children to school.
The report also looked at how families get "stuck" in emergency accommodation, stating that last June, 181 families had spent in excess of 24 months in emergency accommodation. A medical report provided on behalf of one family said: "“They have spent the last 6 months getting up at 5am to get to school, failing asleep at their desks and are becoming nutritionally deficient due to lack of cooking facilities.”
It also referred to the "startling cost" of emergency accommodation, with €118m spent on homeless accommodation with just under €50m going to private operators last year.
The report also expressed concern over family hubs and a failure to identify the particular needs and vulnerabilities of homeless families.
The report makes a range of recommendations, including scrapping one night only accommodation and that local authorities to cease reliance on commercial hotels and B&Bs as a form of emergency homeless provision to homeless families and provide for own door ‘transitional accommodation’ in its place.
MLRC’s Managing Solicitor, Rebecca Keatinge, said the cases referred to in the report were "distressing and painful" and added: "MLRC believes that the majority of recommendations in the report are achievable and could be implemented quickly."