Homeless children's basic needs not being met

Poor nutrition, sleep and self-esteem common
  • Deborah Condon

Children's nutrition, rest and overall health needs are not met when they experience homelessness, a new report from the Children's Rights Alliance (CRA) has found.

Over 3,800 children are currently homeless in Ireland. The alliance set out to determine the impact of homelessness on children's education. It carried out a study involving affected families, as well as teachers and principals.

According to the report based on the study, thousands of children have had their education interrupted and negatively impacted by homelessness.

It noted that school absenteeism was common among the children who took part in the study and this was attributed to inadequate rest, poor diet and poor living conditions.

In fact, parents and teachers repeatedly identified the lack of access to a healthy diet as a factor that impacted on their children's school attendance and learning.

For example, parents highlighted how difficult it can be to provide school lunches when living in emergency accommodation, with some stating that they have to choose between paying for transport to get to school and feeding their children.

Inadequate rest is also a big issue, with many children having to get up very early for school. Some parents said they have to wake their children at 5.30am to ensure access to a communal bathroom and allow enough travel time. As a result, children are often tired before getting to school, falling asleep during the commute.

Parents also pointed out that infections, such as head lice and chicken pox, were common but were difficult to treat and manage when living in overcrowded and confined accommodation.

These poor living conditions can result in exhaustion, low self-esteem, irritability, and feelings of social isolation among children, affecting their attendance and overall performance at school.

It can also lead to changes in their behaviour, such as increased agitation, crying and refusing to eat.

However, the report revealed that school can be a ‘beacon of hope' for children amidst the chaos of homelessness. Parents said that school was important to their children not only because of learning and friends, but also because it offered stability and predictability at a time when both were rare.

Most of the parents who took part said that their children had a positive relationship with their teachers and other school staff. They highlighted the importance of things like praise, encouragement and in-school supports for their children.

"A good home forms the essential basis that prepares a child to go to school, to learn and to thrive. Living in emergency accommodation for long periods simply does not provide this necessary foundation, despite the colossal efforts of schools and parents," commented CRA chief executive, Tanya Ward.

She said that the education of homeless children is being ‘grossly impacted on' and when children are denied a proper education, ‘they lose the chance to develop to their fullest potential'.

"This loss can extend across their lifespan, impacting on their health, wellbeing, social relationships and occupational success. What our report finds is that schools are a beacon of hope for families and a place of sanctuary for children. They provide a stability and consistency that is otherwise absent in a child's life," Ms Ward said.

However, she pointed out that educational professionals often feel helpless and ‘badly need more resources to help them cope'.

The report, Home Works: A Study on the Educational Needs of Children Experiencing Homelessness and Living in Emergency Accommodation, makes a number of recommendations. These include:

-A ring-fenced fund for schools to provide for the needs of homeless children, including psychological support, homework clubs and additional tuition
-Any school with homeless children attending should have access to resources and facilities to provide them with regular, nutritious food
-All temporary and emergency accommodation centres should have appropriately trained staff, safe and secure spaces for rest and sleep, age-appropriate homework and study spaces, adequate facilities for food preparation and storage, and appropriate standards of sanitary accommodation, including private bathrooms and access to washing machines
-A commitment from the Government to provide a specific timeline as to when it will end the use of emergency hotel and B&B-type accommodation for families with children.

The study was commissioned by the CRA and carried out by by Dr Geraldine Scanlon and Grainne McKenna from the DCU Institute of Education.


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