Crowded Houses: Another Side to Dublin's Homeless Crisis

Jennifer Lawrence, her husband, son (6), and daughter (4) spent a year sleeping on the sitting-room floor of her mother-in-law’s house, she says.

Before that, home for the family was rented accommodation in Blanchardstown. But she says that when Fingal County Council told her that a two-bedroom apartment would be ready for them in three months, they gave the landlord notice and the house was put up for sale.

Three months later, the social housing wasn’t ready, says Lawrence. To this day, she says, it hasn’t materialised.

A spokesperson for Fingal County Council said it can’t comment on individual cases, but that accommodation offers are done in writing and applicants shouldn’t give up private rental accommodation until the council says the social housing is ready to be occupied.

Eight months ago, the family presented themselves as homeless due to overcrowding, and they’ve been living in a hotel room since.

The hundreds of families in emergency accommodation aren’t the only manifestation of Dublin’s housing and homelessness crisis.

There are also thousands of families living in substandard, overcrowded accommodation because they have no other options, according to a report released by the children’s charity Barnardos in March this year. There are large families squeezed into tiny rented apartments, and parents crammed into homes with extended family.

“Virtually nothing has been done to help families in overcrowding and inappropriate accommodation with the problem being largely ignored,” says the report. “Once a child has a roof over its head the State seems uninterested in the quality and safety of their home.”

For as long as Lawrence and her family had a roof over their heads at their in-laws, they weren’t considered homeless, says Lawrence. So they remained on the regular, non-prioritised housing list.

Since they presented as homeless, they’re now in the emergency fast-track list. Still, Lawrence expects to be three or four years waiting for a home. She’ll have been on the list ten years this June, she says.

An Overload of Overcrowding

In January, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) analysed why families were presenting as homeless and found three main reasons: notice to leave private rented accommodation, relationship breakdown (often following a move back in with family after leaving private rented accommodation), and overcrowding.

Many of the 78 families who cited one of the latter two reasons were trapped in stressful sofa-surfing, because they had lost private rented accommodation, found the DRHE.

As of January, of the 28,151 applications for social housing in Dublin city, 9,485 of them were due to overcrowded housing conditions, according to figures given to Sinn Féin councillor Daithi Doolan, chair of the council’s Housing Strategic Policy Committee. That’s a third.

In theory, Dublin City Council does offer grants so that those who live in overcrowded conditions can build extensions on their homes. The council press office didn’t respond to a query asking how much the council gave out for extensions for those in overcrowded conditions in the last couple of years.

In a statement in February, Doolan called on Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly to release more money to the council to cover the programme.

Taking Its Toll

Pippa Woolnough, advocacy officer for Barnardos, says she often hears about the hidden overcrowding crisis from her colleagues working across the country.

“In some cases, we’re hearing of up to 15 people living in a three-bedroom house,” she says. “Obviously this puts huge stress on the family and can cause discord. And then this can lead to relationship breakdown. Children are sponges, they would be absorbing that stress.”

Pat Dunne, United Left councillor for the Crumlin and Kimmage area, also frequently comes across families struggling in overcrowded conditions, he says.

“Because they’re living in each other’s ears, tensions grow and family rows develop where they otherwise wouldn’t,” he says.

He gives an example of a woman who moved back into her parents’ house with her child. She sleeps on a pull-out couch and has to wait until everyone goes to bed to go asleep. But her father often sits up extremely late watching television.

“Which he has every right to do in his own house,” says Dunne. “But as a result the mother is exhausted bringing her kid to school.”

Simple things such as using the bathroom or washing machine can become an issue, he says. And parents who take in their children can face losing income from household benefits packages, the fuel allowance, or the free television licence.

Lawrence says that living in her mother-in-law’s sitting room caused constant anxiety. “It was putting a lot of pressure on us being there,” she says. “Me and my husband were always fighting.”

The Effects on Kids

Even now in emergency accommodation, four people sharing a single room is taking a toll on Lawrence’s family, she says. Especially, making sure everybody gets enough sleep.

“I’d be lucky if he was asleep before half 11 at night,” she says of her son, who will be seven in July. Because they’re all sleeping in the same room, the lights and the television have to go off in order to get him to go asleep.

“So we have to go asleep ourselves at half 9, so he’s not waking up really tired for school the next day,” she says. She also worries that without their own space, her two children fight more.

Woolnough of Barnados says that overcrowding can affect children’s social, emotional, and educational development, but most typically it disrupts bedtime routines and sleep patterns.

“Then that can have a knock-on effect on their participation in school the next day,” she says. “And when it’s an ongoing situation, it can definitely have health implications.”

The president of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, Emma Dineen, raised the issues the housing crisis is having on students at the organisation’s annual congress last month.

“It is worrying to see children coming into school hungry or very tired. Tiredness is a big problem, you might have to give them some time to sleep,” says Dineen.

One survey of teachers showed that they can spend a lot of their day assisting families with things like housing concerns, she says, “which is way beyond their remit”.

Councillor Gary Gannon works with early school leavers in the North Inner City. He recently met with one teen who had left school at 16, for reasons escalating from being late after struggling to get enough sleep.

“That guy shares a bedroom with four other people,” says Gannon. “It was quite clear from his eyes and everything else that he was suffering from insomnia. He was staying in a room where he constantly couldn’t sleep, because he’s sharing a room with four other people who may be on their phone, may be snoring, or whatever.”

He was going to school tired and then the day started off with an argument, because he was late or his uniform wasn’t ironed or he was grouchy, says Gannon. Eventually this resulted in a big fight with the principal and he left the school, he says.

Ann Marie Halpenny, who helped to research a 2002 study into the impact that living in emergency accommodation has on children’s development, said the main finding was that when young children, adolescents and adults are together all the time, without any privacy, they often feel discomfort and conflict.

It’s particularly hard on adolescents trying to navigate friendships and peer groups, she said. “Those young people were often sharing rooms with their parents or with much younger children, so they wouldn’t actually have anywhere within that space where they could be on their own. They wouldn’t be able to invite people in, that’s generally the case.”

Young people with sleeping disorders. Children sharing rooms with their uncles. Mothers sharing rooms with kids and siblings. Gannon says he comes across it all the time.

“There’s a huge loss of dignity involved in that for parents,” he says. “These are not natural states of being and in the city at the moment, it’s as if they’re regular.”

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Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

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