As many as one in four children in some of the most disadvantaged primary schools in the country are homeless, with principals warning that the real figures could be even higher.
Schools are reporting that the number of children aged between five and 12 presenting as homeless have increased significantly in the past three years.
In news that will heap further pressure on Fine Gael on the campaign trail, a survey of 22 Deis schools in Cork, Dublin, Galway, and Limerick has shown that an increasing number of young children are living in temporary accommodation, which, according to the schools, is having a major impact on the classroom.
Every Deis or disadvantaged school surveyed said they have encountered homelessness with at least one of their pupils, but in some areas, the scale of the problem is far more acute, with at least four schools saying as many as one in four of their current intake are residing in hotels or other emergency accommodation.
“We have seen a steady increase in the number over the past few years,” said one Dublin-based principal.
“And what is worse, the actual number is likely to be higher as some parents are extremely reluctant to make it known that they are living in hotels.
As a result, we have to go to great lengths to make sure the children are fed and feel some sense of stability. But it has a devastating impact on teachers’ ability to teach.
The failure to deliver an adequate supply of housing across the country has led to a major crisis in so-called Deis schools in some of the country’s most economically challenged communities.
The scale of the problem varies, but in places where immigrant populations are higher, the levels of classroom homelessness is much more acute.
In addition to the rise in pupils who are homeless, several principals spoke of an increased number of families “squeezing into” their grandparents’ homes, many of which are overcrowded and unsuitable.
One Cork-based principal told the Irish Examiner that a large number of children and their parents are now relying on their wider family for a place to stay after falling into homelessness.
“We are seeing the cruel impact of seeing many children having to relocate back with their parents into their grandparents’ house, which creates significant difficulty,” said the principal. “The worrying thing is that these families are not captured by the Government’s homelessness figures.”
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) members often feel helpless, powerless, and ill-equipped to effectively respond to and support pupils who are experiencing homelessness.
The INTO, in conjunction with Focus Ireland, felt the need to produce a formal guide to their members as to how to deal with homelessness in the classroom.
In the report, teachers said they find it difficult to prioritise the educational needs of children who are experiencing homelessness when basic needs are not being met. Educational needs can become secondary to the pupil’s emotional and mental health needs. Children’s play is significantly restricted in homeless accommodation.
Politically, Fine Gael has taken considerable criticism for failing to contain the housing crisis, with over 10,000 people experiencing homelessness nationwide.
That number continues to rise and includes almost 4,000 children.
In response, the Department of Education said there is no compulsion on any student to self-identify as homeless and therefore the department it does not hold statistics on the number of children in temporary accommodation presenting in Deis schools.
The department told the Irish Examiner: “It should be noted that Deis provides additional supports to schools identified as having the highest concentrations of pupils from disadvantaged communities, including the School Meals Programme.”