Sandra Hand says it feels like she’s in Mountjoy. “That’s what it feels like: a prison.”
It’s Wednesday 29 July and for the last seven months, she and her husband Brendan, and their two young children, have been living in a hotel room in north Dublin, in emergency accommodation.
It’s not so much the room she likens to Mountjoy, even though for a family of four it’s overcrowded; it’s the rules they have to sign up to and follow to stay there. In this hotel – which isn’t named here for fear that it will stop taking in homeless families – there are 33 rules in all.
Some of the rules are reasonable. Some seem too obvious to have to put down. Others, though, seem arbitrary and punitive. It’s already a woeful situation; they make it more unbearable, and less dignified.
Demand and Supply, Yet Again
It wasn’t always this way, says Mike Allen, the advocacy director at Focus Ireland. It’s another negative effect of the growing numbers of homeless families.
In January this year, the number of homeless families in Dublin was 359. By June, that figure had jumped to 531. As more families have turned to the council, more have been put up in commercial hotels. In January, there were 216 families camping out in hotels around the city. In June, there were 373 families.
In the past, before the surge in homelessness, the council still put people in hotels but it also still set the rules, said Allen. The hotels couldn’t impose their own special checklists. Now, as Dublin Region Homeless Executive faces larger numbers of homeless families, it’s struggling to source hotel rooms every night, he said.
That mirrors what that Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) says.
Before 2013, emergency accommodation would normally have been provided through statutory or voluntary homeless services, but due to the unparalleled demand, the council has had to “use hotels to a significant degree so as to avoid the experience of sleeping rough”, said a DHRE spokesperson, Lisa Kelleher, in an email.
“It is critical to understand that we use hotels as a last resort and it is not seen as a sustainable solution,” she said.
The rules are up to the hotels, said Kelleher. They’re commercial operations and the council – which gets hotel rooms on a night-by-night basis – “has no formal control over the management and operation of other facilities attached to the hotel”.
Council officials are in a feeble position when it comes to negotiating, Allen says. The council doesn’t feel it’s in a strong position to impose rules, or block what certain hotels demand, and it’s anxious about bad publicity for individual hotels, which it thinks could stop hotels from working with them, and leave them even shorter of rooms.
Allen can’t say whether that’s a legitimate fear or not, but it’s there, he said.
He’s right. It’s “critically important to not name the hotels or location” for privacy reasons, but “also to mitigate against the risk of the hotel withdrawing accommodation provision for people who are presenting as homeless,” said DRHE’s Kelleher.
Sandra Hand and Her Family
I meet Sandra Hand on that Wednesday afternoon in late July at the back reception door down the side lane of the hotel. It’s the side lane for a reason. Under Rule No. 3, Hand isn’t allowed to use the building’s front entrance.
Nor, under Rule No. 3, is she allowed to access the bar or any of the hotel’s food and beverage outlets outside of breakfast hours.
Leading me up the stairs to her room, Sandra tells me that I’m down as someone from St Vincent de Paul. That’s because of Rule No. 10: for health and safety reasons, “users are not permitted to have visitors in emergency accommodation.”
In the cramped room, I meet Sandra’s husband Brendan, their daughter Jasmine (8) and their son Ryan (4) who suffers from ADHD.
There’s not room for even a small table and chairs. Past the bathroom, a double and a single bed take up the left-hand wall and most of floor space. Along the right is a wardrobe, a press with a pile of their clothes on top, a couple of drawers that house Ryan’s toys, and a narrow pine table with a kettle on top.
At the end of the room is a small fridge, given to the family by St Vincent de Paul, and a cooler given by Fr Eamon Devlin, a priest Brendan has known all his life.
There are no cooking facilities so meals are bought as needed. It’s expensive. So is the fact that they don’t have a washing machine or dryer.
Handwashing clothes is out – Rule No.28 states that “under no circumstances are clothes to be dried or aired in the bedrooms or any part of the premises” because this causes damp “which is a health risk and costly to repair”.
This rule is understandable, but it doesn’t help Sandra or Brendan’s pockets.
“Our money is nothing to us,” Sandra says. “We have to buy dinners day by day, we can’t cook. We have to use the laundrette around the corner, that’s €30 a bag, that’s every week. We’re out a fortune.”
Jasmine and Ryan watch The Simpsons on a small television in the corner of the room. There aren’t any rules about children playing in the hall, but there have been some complaints, says Sandra. So she keeps them in.
“My son has ADHD,” she says. “He’s a condition. It’s gotten worse in here because he’s not allowed to play out.”
That’s the reverse problem to some families, says Anthony Flynn, director of Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH), another of Dublin’s homeless organisations.
ICHH, as well as providing support, distributing food and clothing parcels to homeless people throughout the city, is also helping to secure emergency accommodation for families.
In some cases, Flynn says, hotels and bed and breakfasts have rules whereby emergency accommodation guests must make themselves scarce for the day.
“These people are walking out of the hotels in the morning without a breakfast in their stomach and they’re being forced to go back to family residence or to walk the streets throughout the day with their children and come back in at a certain hour at night,” he says.
Other hotels, such as the one where Sandra is staying, allow you to stay in your room, but confine you to it.
She is suffering too, from the cramped quarters. “I’ve anxiety now. I suffer with panic attacks, depression,” she says. She has red, tired eyes, and her voice is tremulous. She looks nervous, shaky, and worn out.
Jasmine is on her summer holidays now, but up until June, Sandra was taking eight buses a day, to and from Finglas, dropping her to and collecting her from school. Two buses in the morning to drop her. Two buses back. Two buses to collect her. Two buses back.
This is one of the reasons why the local St Vincent de Paul Conference offered the family a holiday to one of its centres in Donegal for six days.
“They wanted to get us out of this room for a family holiday to Bundoran for six days from the tenth of July,” Sandra says.
The family were looking forward to it, she says, and she and Brendan were putting money by each week. “The kids were pure excited,” Brendan says.
But when Sandra notified Dublin City Council of the holiday, there was a big problem.
All emergency accommodation guests must sign a register every night. Absences are reported to Dublin City Council and can lead to a person losing their placement.
As Sandra tells it, Dublin City Council said it was her decision to go, but if she did, she’d have to pack up her belongings, stow them in storage, and find a new hotel room when she got back because this one would not be kept for the family.
It would mean ringing around hotels, trying to find a vacancy, which would probably only be for a night at a time, Sandra says. So the holiday was cancelled.
DRHE spokesperson Kelleher said it does not comment on individual cases. In general though, she said, “due to the current severe constraints on family emergency accommodation, it is not always possible to maintain accommodation for families in hotels, if they are away or to secure a return to a commercial establishment.”
Says Sandra: “We couldn’t risk it. It wasn’t for me or him, it was for the kids.”
The kids were devastated, Brendan says. “It was just to give them a bit of normality. To get them out of the hotel room. To get them out of this.”
A Wider Problem
There are other cases where relatives have paid for holidays for families living in emergency accommodation, to give them a break, and the council has been unbending, says Flynn of Inner City Helping Homeless.
“If you leave your room for six days, you’re not going back into that room,” he says.
“Again, it comes back to saying, “Let’s lock everybody up and put them in Mountjoy.” You have St Vincent de Paul, one of the biggest charitable organisations in the country, providing a holiday for a family who are down on their luck, who have no home,” Flynn says. “A letter from St Vincent de Paul should justify these people going on holidays and the rooms should be secure.
A Question of Curfews
Of all the rules that homeless families in hotels and emergency accommodation live by, it’s curfews that come up most often, says Allen from Focus Ireland. Parents are treated like children, he said. And their children can see it happening.
In Sandra’s hotel, that’s Rule No. 15: “All guests are to abide by the House Manager’s curfew times, 11:00pm.”
When visiting her mother and father in Blanchardstown – two buses over and two buses back – Sandra says she’s conscious of the time and feels under pressure not to stay too long. “If it’s near ten, you’re rushing to get back. You don’t want to get in trouble or lose your place.” Miss the sign-in and you’re marked as absent.
Brendan’s mother lives in Navan in Meath. She’s been ill this last year, and trying to visit and get back by 11pm is tough. The two kids, Jasmine and Ryan, can’t stay overnight at their grandmother’s.
Sandra has been allowed to break the curfew once. Her sister is deaf and when she went into labour in March, she needed Sandra to interpret for her with hospital staff. The hotel and Dublin City Council, according to Sandra, would not let her break the curfew unless she had proof. She got a letter from Rotunda Hospital, and was allowed.
But that’s just once.
On top of the television in their room, there’s a photograph of Sandra and Brendan on their wedding day. On Saturday 15 August, it will be a year ago to the day. But even if they managed to get someone to watch the kids, they won’t be able to celebrate much. The curfew rule is unlikely to be bent for an anniversary.
It’s not like the council is getting the hotel rooms for free. According to the DHRE, from January to the end of June, over €4.5 million had been spent on commercial hotels.
But it’s a case of “We’ll take the council’s money, we’ll charge them through the nose, but let’s hide the fact that we have ten or fifteen families who are homeless,” says Flynn from Inner City Helping Homeless.
“These hotels don’t want these families moving around the foyer or the general areas, because they don’t want people knowing that hotel has homeless people,” he said.
“If you’re going to have three kids in a hotel, I don’t suggest you should be sitting in the bar area, but you should have the freedom to move around the hotel. Especially if the council are paying the rates that they’re paying.”
There should be a fairer way, says Allen from Focus Ireland. “We would like to see a system in which hotels agree to a common set of rules that were reasonable and didn’t impose unreasonable restrictions on the families.”
It’s difficult to get hotels to talk in detail about the issue of rules for their homeless guests. The hotel in which the Hand family were staying did not respond to questions about its rules.
Three other hotels that councillors or homeless organisations had said have been used to put up homeless families gave mixed responses to queries.
One hotel said that it did have homeless people staying in emergency accommodation and that there was a set of rules to be adhered to, but claimed that these were for the safety of the individuals and the welfare of their children. The hotel wasn’t willing to give a copy of the rules. A second hotel never responded to our queries.
A manager in the third hotel said the hotel could never give out that sort of information on its guests, and referred us to Dublin City Council. He did say, though, that all the guests there were treated the same, as equals.
A New Hotel, a Freer Life
A few days after I visited Sandra, she got a call to say she and her family were being moved to another hotel. Sandra says she thinks it was because of a complaint about the children playing in the hall.
At first, she wasn’t pleased. But life in her new hotel is freer than the last, she said recently on the phone.
The room is bigger. “You can cook your own dinners and wash clothes; there’s washing facilities and cooking facilities. It’s open 24 hours. You don’t have to sign in you don’t have to sign out,” she said.