Kids in family hubs feel 'overwhelming shame'

New report by Ombudsman for Children
  • Deborah Condon

Children living in family hubs experience ‘overwhelming feelings of shame, guilt and anger', a new report has found.

Family hubs are purpose built or specifically adapted premises used to house families who are homeless. They are alternatives to hotels and B&Bs and make up part of the Government's response to the housing crisis.

The report, No Place Like Home, by the Ombudsman for Children, looks at the views and experiences of children who are living in these hubs.

"Up until now we have not had a clear picture of the experiences of the children living there. Children told us, in their own words, what it is like to share a room with their parents and siblings, what it is like to go to school from a family hub, to study and do homework.

"They told us about what it is like to have to go to bed and turn off all the lights when their younger brother or sister is going to sleep. Space, privacy, noise, not being able to have visitors, feelings of shame and embarrassment, were all issues raised by the children who talked to us," explained the Ombudsman, Dr Niall Muldoon.

Ombudsman staff spoke to 25 children aged between five and 12 years, 12 children aged between 13 and 17 years, and 33 parents of 43 children who were under the age of five years.

When it came to what they liked about the hubs, many children and parents acknowledged the safety and stability they felt, particularly if previous living experiences had been precarious.

"It's better than a hotel or street or another person's house. The hub is clean, we are not hungry or dirty," said one mother of a 17-month-old.

The kindness of staff and activities for the children, when available, were also mentioned as positives.

However, the report also noted that ‘several young children involved in the consultation could not identify anything positive that they liked about living in the hub'.

"In a number of cases, when asked what was good about living in the hub, children simply answered with the word ‘nothing', with one 10-year-old boy saying ‘I hate everything here'," it stated.

When the children and parents were asked about the difficulties they had in the hub, many challenges were identified. When it came to the parents of under-fives, a number of common themes emerged, including lack of space, lack of privacy, excessive noise and tension between residents.

"The lack of space and privacy and the excessive noise were seen by parents to have a number of negative impacts on their very young children. The majority of families who live in family hubs have one room with an en-suite bathroom, while those with bigger families have two such rooms. Parents raised concerns about how much space their children had to learn to crawl and walk and reported that their children felt confined," the report noted.

Noise problems were particularly noticeable at night and resulted in broken sleep patterns and sleep regression for children. Tensions between residents were also a major problem, particularly if some used alcohol or drugs.

"There's a lot of residents that scream and shout, and be very abusive towards their children. And then you have a lot of residents that's on drugs in the building - and that doesn't even hide it, or try to hide it. So, there's just too much that goes on in here," said a mother of two children aged two and four years.

Some parents were also worried about the impact on their children's psychological development and mental health.

When it came to the children aged between five and 17, their unhappiness was clear. One eight-year-old girl said the hub was ‘like a children's jail' and explained that her five-year-old brother had tried to run away several times already.

The lack of space and privacy was also a big issue, with one nine-year-old girl explaining that she loves reading, but if her sister wants to go to sleep, she has to ‘read in the toilet'.

Meanwhile the tension and noise also affects these children, with one seven-year-old saying that when people are fighting, she and her mother try to turn it into a game by guessing what the ‘screaming' might be about.

"The noise keeps me awake, I feel tired when I go to school. I feel like my eyes feel like they are about to go to sleep," she said.

Some hubs do not allow any visitors and this was a source of upset for children.

"I like nothing about living here, I have none of my friends here, I can't do a sleep over, it makes me feel sad. There's nothing nice about how I feel," said one six-year-old.

Feelings of sadness, confusion and anger were also common, with one 10-year-old stating ‘some days, I didn't even want to wake up because I didn't want to face this day'.

Others were embarrassed about living in a hub and were concerned that they would be judged for being homeless.

The older children had similar issues. One 16-year-old girl explained that she shared a bunk bed with her father so gets very little privacy. Others talked about how isolated they felt, and how embarrassed they were.

"Sometimes I feel cross ... I just cry sometimes, I just keep it to myself," a 13-year-old said.

Dr Muldoon said that based on the responses, he has highlighted a number of priorities for change.

"I believe that the time has come to progress the conversation on including an express right to housing in our Constitution. And after two years and considerable investment, an independent formal evaluation of family hubs is needed. What is the long term plan for family hubs and what will their legacy be?

"Where families are in family hubs, statutory time limits, as well as independently regulated standards are needed," he insisted.

He called for an improvement in data collection ‘that it is fully transparent to inform the right decisions in the best interests of people who are homeless, especially children'.

"We can no longer allow our children to live with the overwhelming feelings of shame, guilt and anger because they are homeless through no fault of their own," Dr Muldoon added.

The report, No Place Like Home, can be viewed here.


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