Homeless Families Say Their Complaints About Emergency Accommodation Are Ignored

On 8 June, as Shauna Callaghan’s children were playing on her hotel room’s floor, two gardaí knocked on the door.

They wanted to know if she had visitors in the room, says Callaghan, a homeless mother of three who has been living in the The Bonnington Dublin hotel since August last year. That would have been against hotel rules.

Hotel management had called the gardaí, Callaghan learnt later. Only nobody asked her first, and Callaghan, as they found, was alone with her family.

“I invited them in. They seen there was nobody here and they left saying they were very sorry,” she said, last week.

A Garda spokesperson said: “Gardaí attended a premises on the Swords Rd, Santry, on the 8th June 2019, after receiving a complaint of a non resident on site. All was in order.” The Bonnington declined to comment.

Her two-year-old daughter was terrified, though, says Callaghan, sitting in the small garden where those staying in the hotel congregate to chat and get their children out of the hotel rooms. “She still is nervous over it.”

Oppressive rules mean families placed in The Bonnington by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) face a hostile environment, say Callaghan and others who have been put up there – yet they say their complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

Many residents stuck in hotels and “family hubs” because they’ve nowhere else to go – and vulnerable to being kicked out at short notice – say they fear that if they advocate for themselves, they’ll be treated worse.

Campaigners and those who are homeless say there should be a more effective complaints procedure to make sure issues around private emergency accommodation are dealt with.

Policing Motherhood

On the afternoon of Tuesday 9 July, Tina Dempsey was sitting in the small garden at the side of The Bonnington, as fellow resident Christina McAnaspie consoled her.

Dempsey had just been told she had to leave The Bonnington. So she’d called the DRHE, the wing of Dublin City Council that oversees homeless services – but they told her there was nowhere for her to go, she says.

“I’m sick of it I am. I’m sick of it,” says Dempsey, visibly upset, her children standing silently beside her. “All over a glass of wine.”

Dempsey had been staying at The Bonnington for five months, and had gotten her first written warning a week earlier, she says.

She’d left her two sons in bed asleep at around 9:30am one morning, to nip downstairs to run some laundry, she says. But rule seven for homeless families at the hotel is that: “All children must be under their parent’s supervision at all times.”

Staff told her to go wake up her kids and bring them with her, she says. “I started roaring shouting,” says Dempsey. She says she was stressed out because her nine-year-old son had told her he wasn’t feeling well.

“He said his head is messed up. Says he can’t breathe properly,” she says, pointing towards him, as he sits on the porch beside Dempsey, listening to every word.

He speaks up. “I can’t do anything in there. I feel like I’m doing the same thing every day,” Dempsey’s son says.

That’s in part because of the hotel rules, Dempsey says. “The kids weren’t allowed go out and socialise with any of the other kids, they were closed up in that room,” she says. (According to another rule, residents can’t leave children with others in the hotel.)

Dempsey says she’d actually called DRHE previously and asked to be moved from The Bonnington. She was worried about the effect that living there was having on her children, and she felt intimidated.

The DRHE hadn’t moved her. And now, all of a sudden, she was being booted out.

Dempsey says she was asked to leave after carrying a glass of wine across the hall. She says she wasn’t given anything in writing explaining why she and her family had to leave. Nor was she given any notice.

She was told to leave immediately. “I haven’t got anywhere to go,” she says, in tears, McAnaspie’s arm around her.

In the end, Dempsey was accommodated later that night in a family hub in town, and she and her children are much happier there.

In response to a request to comment on the issues raised by some residents, an individual working in The Bonnington’s private emergency accommodation section said, “I don’t think we’re going to entertain that, thank you though,” and hung up.

Deaf Ears

Callaghan says she has complained to the DRHE about heavy-handedness at the hotel.

“I’m getting nothing back,” she says.

Keeping children with her at all times is draining, says Callaghan. “The stress I’m going through the whole time being a full-time mother with three kids.”

Callaghan shows a letter from Tusla from 12 June this year. It was sent four days after the evening that gardaí knocked on her door and found nobody there.

“The Social Work Department has received a referral from Management at the Bonnington Hotel regarding your having guests on the evening of 8th June 2019,” the letter says.

“It does not require any further action as no harm to your children was identified,” it says.

Stacey Leigh, who has stayed in both family hubs and private emergency accommodation, says social workers were called a lot.

“If the kids acted up in any way, the staff rang the social workers and they were called in and a case was opened,” says Leigh, who now works with homeless women in these institutions through North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Committee.

“You felt that your human identity was just literally scraped from you and taken fully away,” says Leigh.

Hotels have no proper places for children to play, she says. But the kids still need to wander around, to be kids, which can cause clashes between parents and staff – and sometimes can prompt calls to social workers, she says.

“It could be the way that you speak to your child or the way you give out to your child,” says Leigh.

“It could be the way that your child is running around and you’re calling him from one room to another. Or you’re out the front having a smoke and the child is roaming,” she says.

Making sure your children are by your side all the time is incredibly stressful, she says.

“It’s wasting Tusla’s time and they’ve other cases out there that they need to be dealing with,” says Leigh.

A Tusla spokesperson said the agency wants to hear from anyone who has “reasonable grounds for concern that a child may have been, is being, or is at risk of being abused or neglected”.

“All referrals are screened and assessed in line with Children First. Some reports may require the intervention of Tusla while some reports may not … and can be directed to more appropriate services,” the spokesperson said.

Complaints Today

There have been relatively few official complaints from families staying in hostels and hotels, says Ireland’s Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon.

Parents can feel under pressure and that their accommodation might not be guaranteed into the future, he said. That “anything that might rock the boat would make it more difficult for them to get that accommodation”.

“You feel that you’re powerless completely, so you’re always hesitant to make complaints and that’s something that we need to address as quickly as possible,” he said.

The lack of autonomy that people have in hotels and family hubs has been clear in earlier research, such as the No Place Like Home report released by Muldoon’s office in April, he says.

People would be somewhat better off in hubs, Muldoon says. “There would be more of a professional staff, specifically geared towards working in this area,” he says.

The Ombudsman for Children has said there needs to be a proper, standard complaints procedure across all the different kinds of emergency accommodation.

Without that, you’re never going to be able to improve the system, Muldoon says. “You’re not going to be able to give people the opportunity to fix what they see is wrong.”

DRHE sets out the stages of complaints on its website. Complaints should first go to the manager of the service. Then, if that doesn’t sort the problem, an informal complaint can be made to DRHE by phone, letter, or email. Finally, a formal complaint can be made through DRHE’s online form.

The DRHE is supposed to acknowledge a complaint within five working days and issue a response within 21 working days, the website says. Some say that doesn’t happen though.

“Generally it doesn’t get replied to,” says independent Dublin City Councillor Anthony Flynn, who also runs Inner City Helping Homeless. “In terms of actual sanctions on units and stuff like that, there doesn’t seem to be much enforcement either.”

How complaints are dealt with is an ongoing concern, says Aisling Hedderman from North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Committee.

“They’re not going through the proper procedures,” says Hedderman. “The complaints would go in but nobody follows through and there’s no oversight.”

The committee is arguing with DRHE about it, she says. “We’re trying to set up some sort of focus group so we can start getting the issues recognised.”

A spokesperson for DRHE says it “actively pursues all complaints”.

“When complaints are received, the appropriate department investigates the complaint and then responds accordingly to the complainant, action is taken if applicable,” the spokesperson said.

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Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers the north side of the city. You can reach him at sfinnan@dublininquirer.com.

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