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Homeless adults often complain about how they are kicked out of night-time only hostels in the mornings, and left to wander the streets.
At the end of last month, there were complaints that children were going through the same thing.
A father called RTÉ’s Liveline on 24 August to say that Tusla had placed his son, aged 16, who has Asperger’s syndrome and mental-health problems, in a night-time-only hostel.
The father said the child needs mental-health services, and that the hostel closes every morning, leaving him on the streets for the day.
“He had a social worker with him an hour or two hours a day and they gave him a voucher for McDonalds,” he told the radio programme.
Anti-homelessness campaigner Father Peter McVerry says: “That should be highlighted if that is true, it is totally unacceptable.”
Tusla has confirmed that it commissions and funds two night-time-only emergency-accommodation facilities for children in Dublin. Another service provides one emergency bed for girls that is also night-time only access.
Fr McVerry says he is surprised Tusla is still referring children to night-time-only hostels.
A spokesperson for Tusla said it has “submitted a business case to the Government for 2018 for funding” to convert Lefroy House, where the child in question is placed, into a 24-hour facility.
The Salvation Army runs one of the Tusla-funded facilities for under-18s.
That unit closes at 10am, Monday to Friday, and at 2pm on weekends, says Salvation Army Communications Officer Martin Donegan. It re-opens at 5pm each day, he said.
Children placed in the hostel “receive a 24-hour seamless service and, for operational reasons, the service for the young people during the day is located nearby”, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
But a Tusla spokesperson said something a bit different. The children have regular meetings with their social workers, who aim to link them in with local youth services and educational supports, she said. There is a dedicated advocacy service and a mediation service open to them.
Where do the children go for meals during the day? “Young people would generally meet up with their project worker during the day and have meals together,” said the Tusla spokesperson.
They get breakfast and an evening meal in the hostel, she said, and some of them are entitled to social-welfare payments. “From time to time young people request vouchers to buy food, as they may not want to meet up with their project workers,” she said.
Father McVerry says he doubts if the care given to the children is “seamless”.
In July, independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan, who represents Dublin Central, asked a question in the Dáil about a night-time-only children’s hostel. She wanted to know when it would be converted to 24-hour-access.
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone replied that “the young people there receive a 24-hour seamless service”. So what does the Department of Children and Youth Affairs men by “seamless 24-hour support”?
“The young people avail of a dedicated service which operates during the day, at weekends and public holidays,” said a spokesperson. “It supports each young person individually and to tailor the service to their unique needs.”
Some attend school and training, and those who don’t, get support from a project worker, he said.
O’Sullivan said she had visited the facility in question and that it is very well run. Staff there “do try to link the young people with services and education, but there is no doubt there are gaps”, the TD said.
“The main problem is those young people who, for whatever reason, are not engaging with anything positive during the day and some are mixing with chaotic homeless and homeless in addiction,” she said.
There are a number of reasons why a young person might access emergency accommodation services on a short-term basis, said the spokesperson for Tusla.
“Young people in the care of their parents may have a family home but … may be unable to live there and require temporary, short-term accommodation until they can return home or alternative appropriate accommodation is provided,” she said.
Tusla couldn’t confirm how many unaccompanied homeless children are currently in night-time-only accommodation, and referred us to the NGOs that provide the services.
Donegan of the Salvation Army said that on average five children stay in the unit each night. The length of their stay is not fixed, he said. “It really depends on the individual,” he said. “Generally, it’s a maximum of two weeks.”
The spokesperson for Tusla said that, “In 2016, there were 162 service users and 45 of them accessed Lefroy House more than once.” There are also two other facilities that can be used for homeless children, one of which is just one female bed.
We asked the Ombudsman for Children whether it was appropriate to place children in night-time-only accommodation, rather than 24-hour accommodation, but they had not replied by the time this was published.
Unaccompanied Homeless Children
The 2016 census counted 126 homeless children who were not in the care of their parents.
Children under 16 who present as “out of home” would be taken into state care, said a spokesperson for the Department of Youth and Children.
But those aged 16 and 17 may be taken into care or, where their main need has been assessed to be accommodation, may be provided with a service under section 5 of the Child Care Act 1991, said the spokesperson.
That legislation allows for unaccompanied homeless children to be placed in emergency accommodation if they are not being taken into state care.
“If you are 17, they really don’t want to deal with you,” says Fr McVerry. “The group that suffers most are the 17-year-olds. They [Tusla] won’t give them the full range of services because they are almost adults.”
But Fr McVerry says services for under-18s have improved “infinitely” since he started working with the homeless.
The services for under-18s are much better than adult services, and there is no shortage of beds for unaccompanied children as far as he is aware. “No child would be left on the street or be offered a sleeping bag,” he says.
But when young people turn 18, they suddenly get a much-reduced service, he says.
“Sometimes when they turn 18, they are dumped into adult homeless services, into drug-filled hostels, out in the morning at nine, and not allowed back until six or nine at night, depending on the hostel,” he says.
Young people who are well-mannered and attending education are more likely to receive continued support once they turn 18, he says. But he believes those with the highest needs should be prioritised, instead.
Children’s hostels are currently regulated by Tusla, but it is preparing to hand this responsibility to the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA), said the spokeperson for the Department for Youth and Children.
“All inspections of children residential centres are carried out under the national standards for children residential centres,” he said.
Homeless children who are not with their families won’t show up in the homeless figures. Neither will many other young people who are in emergency accommodation funded by Tusla.
Like victims of domestic violence, whose services are also run by Tusla, they won’t make the official tally, which only includes those in emergency accommodation provided by the local authority.
Donegan says the night-time-only emergency accommodation unit run by the Salvation Army is not a homeless hostel, but a “childcare facility”, and that the children are not homeless but “out of home”.
However, he acknowledged that it is listed as a “homeless service” on their website.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 13:28 on Wednesday 6 September. Two quotations were wrongly attributed to a spokesperson for Tusla, rather than the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Apologies for the error.]