On the streets as a teenager, Aisling Bruen usually slept in shelters at night. But sometimes there weren’t enough beds for all the people who needed them.
When that happened the duty social worker advised them to go sleep in a Garda station, she says. They didn’t always do that though.
“We used to know places around town where you could kick in fire exits of apartments, the back stairs that no one was using,” she says. “Just to get in out of the elements, it was just survival stuff.”
She’d been removed from her mother’s care at the age of four. Sixteen years old by this point, she was in the care of the Irish state.
“It was definitely trespassing,” she says. “Other times you would just go around town all night.”
Back then, in 2008, homeless teens were mostly accommodated in Lefroy House – just as they still are today.
So what happens these days when that hostel is full? “Every effort is made to ensure that an emergency bed is provided elsewhere,” says a spokesperson for Tusla.
Neither Tusla nor the Gardaí were able to confirm on how many occasions, in 2018 and 2019, children in state care slept in Garda stations.
Children who grow up like this in state care are vulnerable to becoming homeless as adults. No one seems to know how common this is, as Tusla doesn’t track it.
But Shane Dunphy, head of social care in Waterford College of Further Education, has said that it is a significant cause of homelessness.
The government and Dublin City Council already have programmes in place to try to address this issue, but more needs to be done, some say.
Neil Forsyth, of the Irish Aftercare Network, says young people should remain in the care of the state until they can secure stable accommodation.
And Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello wants the Dublin City Council to step in and ring-fence housing for them to make this possible. This has been done elsewhere in Ireland, he says.
These days Bruen, now 27, is a community worker with an interest in advocating for the housing needs of care-leavers. She’s also a housing activist.
Over breakfast in the Wooden Whisk on Talbot Street, Bruen – who has blond hair and a short fringe – describes how she felt approaching her eighteenth birthday.
“I was institutionalised into a system that looked after me from the age of four and all of a sudden I’m going to be outside those structures,” she says. “How am I going to cope?”
Without family to fall back on, young people who grew up in state care and are facing life on their own often feel overwhelmed, she says.
“All of a sudden you are coming up to this age, where you are thrown into uncertainty,” she says. “You have never lived in private rental before, you don’t know how to pay a bill.”
Bruen managed to avoid homelessness as an adult: she got an “aftercare” payment to cover her rent by staying on in full-time education. But her housing in shared private rental accommodation was very insecure, she says.
Some of the houses she lived in went into receivership. There were issues with flatmates. Rent hikes priced her out. And one landlord said his own family was moving back into the property so she had to move out, she says.
“I had a lot of moves – I was going to say placement moves, but they are not placement moves,” she says. (Placement moves are the term used by social workers when children switch foster families or residential homes.)
“It goes to show how I feel about the private rented sector,” says Bruen
Even a “successful” move on from care, if it’s into private rented accommodation, can mean the care leaver is still extremely vulnerable to becoming homelessness, she says.
Sharing spaces in rented accommodation is difficult for everybody, she says. But for someone whose childhood was totally unstable, it can be re-traumatising.
“Children leaving care have already had a lot of instability, so the instability of the private rental sector is harder on them, it can bring up the trauma of placement breakdowns,” she says.
When asked about the potential for housing instability and homelessness to re-traumatise care leavers, a spokesperson for Tusla said: “Tusla work in close collaboration with the Local Authorities regarding housing provision through the local interagency steering committees.”
From Care to Homelessness
It’s unclear exactly how many care leavers end up homeless.
In 2000, a team of researchers, in association with Focus Ireland, published an in-depth study on outcomes for care leavers in Ireland.
It found that 68 percent of children in the study leaving mainstream care experienced homelessness within two years.
Forsyth also manages Focus Ireland Aftercare service, and he says that if you include the hidden homeless – people staying on a friend’s sofa, for example – around 25 percent to 30 percent of the young people in that service are homeless.
A Tusla spokesperson said “Tusla collates data nationally in relation to the accommodation type of care leavers” but “There is no specific data collated in relation to homelessness”.
However, the spokesperson provided figures that show that of 2,017 care leavers aged 18–22 in receipt of after care in December 2018, nearly half (939) were still living with carers, and about a quarter (529) were living independently.
About 9 percent (180) were listed as living in “Other accommodation”, which includes a range of options, from prison to “homelessness”. That suggests that only a small percentage of care leavers in after care in this age group were homeless.
Whatever the exact figures, care leavers are among those worst affected by the housing crisis, Forsyth says. If they don’t have a foster family they can stay on with – where can they go? he says.
“Years ago we would have helped them find their own flats and achieve independence,” Forsyth says. “Now they are going back to their family of origin and those arrangements often break down not long afterwards.”
Going back to the family of origin can be harmful, says Dunphy, the head of social care in Waterford College of Further Education. There is likely a good reason why the child was taken into care in the first place.
A spokesperson for Tusla says this is up to the young person once they become an adult. “Once young people leave care and turn 18 years of age they have the right to make a choice in relation to their accommodation type,” they said.
A “joint protocol” put in place in 2014 between Tusla and each local authority aims to prevent care leavers from becoming homeless.
As part of this, Dublin City Council, staff from the Housing Department and Tusla meet together in a steering group.
According to the joint protocol, if a care leaver becomes homeless while under the age of 21, their case comes up for review by the steering group “as a matter of urgency”.
Dublin City Council assesses social housing applications for young people in care before they turn 18. Once they reach adulthood they are added to the housing list and are automatically entitled to Band 1 priority, says a council spokesperson.
But even if they have priority it will take years for them to be housed in social housing, says Forsyth. “Priority is not going to get you a house,” he says.
The limits of the government’s Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) scheme, meanwhile, are also far too low for single people – and young care leavers are not attractive tenants to private landlords, Forsyth says.
Care leavers are a “very vulnerable cohort” who are over-represented in homeless figures, says Costello, the Green Party councillor, who is also a social worker.
“These are children for whom the state is in the role of parent,” he says. “The state has a responsibility to keep providing support even when they are over 18.”
Costello submitted a motion to the council in June asking councillors to agree to ring-fence homes for care leavers. It’s unclear when exactly that motion might make its way to the top of the list and be debated by councillors at City Hall.
Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown council has reserved a small number of homes for care leavers, Costello says. They assign these to a charity that then provides shared accommodation for several young people together.
Capital Assistance Scheme
The government committed under its Rebuilding Ireland flagship housing plan, which was launched back in 2016, “to ensure that young people leaving State care and at risk of homelessness are identified and catered for through appropriate housing and other supports required to meet their needs”.
So, since 2016, approved housing bodies (AHBs) have been able to purchase properties specifically for care leavers using funding from the government’s Capital Assistance Scheme (CAS).
Over those years, Dublin City Council has accommodated 18 young people under that scheme, according to a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.
That scheme is excellent because it provides stable social housing for care leavers, says Forsyth. “It’s a really good thing, we would like more of that,” he says.
The problem is there are caps on how much the AHBs, including Focus Ireland, which Forsyth works for, can spend – which means the scheme is less useful in Dublin city compared to rural areas. “Spending caps are squeezing us out of the market in certain areas,” he says.
“The CAS housing scheme recognises the vulnerability of young care leavers,” a spokesperson for Tusla said. “The development of the CAS scheme has made some impact on preventing homelessness … and a review of the scheme is currently being commissioned by the Department for Children and Youth Affairs.”
Focus Ireland have secured some homes through leasing schemes too, says Forsyth, but demand is way outstripping supply. Young care leavers continue to become homeless.
He says that since it is possible to identify which young people are vulnerable to homelessness each year, prevention work should be possible.
“We know who they are, it should be a simple thing,” Forsyth says. “They simply don’t leave until they have somewhere to go.”
“The factors that contribute to care leavers becoming homeless are often complex and in many cases relate to the effect of trauma they experienced in their early lives along with challenges in adjusting to care,” a spokesperson for Tusla said.
“They may face considerable challenges relating to mental health, addiction and difficulties in forming relationships with services,” they said.
Aftercare planning starts “on their 16th birthday” and anticipates the services they will need to transition into adulthood, the spokesperson said. Sometimes young people disengage from aftercare services, and so Tusla offers drop-in services.
“We are continually exploring ways in which we can promote aftercare services so that we can encourage young people who have disengaged to take up support from ourselves,” the spokesperson said.
Forsyth says there are long waiting lists for aftercare workers. Bruen too says that many young people are not provided with the aftercare service – and that this can contribute to them becoming homeless.
But the Tusla spokesperson says that “All young people or young adults assessed as eligible for aftercare supports are offered support as per aftercare policy 2017 in line with current legislation.”
In conjunction with the group Empowering People in Care (EPIC), Bruen is organising a housing support group for care leavers. She hopes the group will provide a platform for young people to advocate for their housing needs.
Care leavers should not have to fight for very basic things like stable accommodation, Bruen says. But they do. “I was always outspoken about social justice and that comes from having to fight,” she says.