For Lisa Orr and her three children, it feels as if the walls are closing in.
They live in a small room in a hotel on Dame Street, with just one double bed and nowhere to cook, and nowhere to wash clothes, she says.
First, her son’s preschool closed. Then, the playgrounds. The local park was locked up next. And on Monday, there was another blow when McDonald’s closed its doors.
While life in hotels for homeless families was already hard, many say it’s getting tougher as they struggle with the ripple effects of the Covid-19 pandemic – with concerns about where they’ll get food from, where the kids can play or exercise, and where they’ll get laundry done.
Some in the housing sector say it’s time to tap into what they say are thousands of empty homes and apartments that are scattered across the city, suitable for people to move into now.
Concerns About Food
As restaurants, cafes, and takeaways across the city down their shutters, Orr is wondering how she will feed her children.
“You have to eat out every day, but now everything is closing,” she says. “All we have is a kettle and toaster in the room.”
Brenda Reddington, who lives in a hotel room with her three children, has a fridge in the room but no way to cook.
They were living on takeaways until recently, she said. Last weekend, a key worker told her about a new centre nearby where she can get hot meals each day. She tried it out, she says – and the food was good.
Orr says she doesn’t have a key worker. She became homeless for a second time a few weeks ago.
Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland, who chairs Dublin City Council’s housing committee, says that Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) plans to provide food to families in hotels – either through the hotel, or through deliveries.
The DRHE didn’t respond to queries about this in time for publication.
Play and Laundry
Life in hotels is harder than before because of social distancing rules, says Reddington.
Her children – aged 12, 10 and 5 – have been sick for weeks, she says. First, with high temperatures, and now still coughing.
She believes they may be passing the illness back and forth to each other because they are all sleeping in one room, she says.
Her usual escape would be to visit her mother’s house, where the kids can play outside but that’s off the table right now in case they pass on what they have.
“I can’t even go over to my ma’s for a break because the kids are not well,” she says. “I just feel sorry for them, keeping them in,” she says.
“All the play areas are closed,” says Orr. “It is very hard for young kids, they are getting very frustrated.”
Inside the Dame Street hotel she’s in, there’s no space in the room for her children, aged 2 and 4, to play or exercise, she says.
She has a baby, just 11 months old, too. That means loads of laundry – and another fear: that the laundrettes will close. “There are no plans put in place, no one has told me anything,” she says.
On the phone on Saturday, Reddington says she had just spent €50 on loads of washing and drying in the laundrette.
Homeless children may already be behind in reaching their developmental potential, says Dr Ellen Crushell, dean of the faculty of paediatrics at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.
Crushell is also the lead author of areportthat found that children in emergency accommodation were more likely to have underlying respiratory illnesses, poor nutrition, mental health problems and reduced access to play and recreation.
“It is awful there are no playgrounds, it has an added impact, they are already restricted,” she says. “Children need to play and get exercise even to learn to do basic things like learning to climb.”
Doing homework, when the whole family lives in one room is already challenge and expecting parents to homeschool children adds to the stress. “Things could get very, very difficult,” she said.
It is not practical for children to be isolated in a room for weeks or months, she says. “They absolutely can’t, they will be running around the corridors, it is very hard to keep them isolated,” she says. “It all has an added negative impact on their already stressful lives.”
“They are probably suffering more than most in this crisis,” she says.
Rory Hearne, a lecturer in social policy at Maynooth University, says that with families in hotels sharing rooms, it limits what they are able to do to stay healthy.
“It is not going to be possible in terms of self-isolation,” says Hearne, who has also done research into the impact of emergency accommodation on families. The longer it goes on, the worse the impact, he says.
It’s a child welfare issue, says Hearne. “The Minister for Children has a clear role and responsibility in ensuring that children are not left in a situation that is damaging developmentally and scaring them emotionally.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Children said that “ultimate responsibility for managing homelessness” rests with the Department of Housing.
But the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla “are determined to do their part to alleviate the difficulties experienced by children and families who are homeless”, they said.
The spokesperson didn’t answer queries about the impact of the crisis on homeless children, or whether Tusla should play a role in accommodating the families.
Orr says that she is concerned about her children’s health and development. So she asked the council to move her family to more suitable accommodation, she says.
But was told that they are not moving anyone during the Coronavirus crisis, she says.
Gilliland, the Labour councillor, says that it’s current DRHE policy not to move families where possible to try to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
Hearne, a lecturer at Maynooth University, says the ministers for children and housing need to organise an emergency housing programme in the interests of child welfare.
“There are thousands of properties held by banks, NAMA, which are vacant,” he says. “There are a huge amount of properties just becoming available that are not being used for Airbnb – and then there is the local-authority vacant housing.”
Independent Councillor Anthony Flynn, who is also the CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless, says that as far as he is aware there are no plans to move homeless families to apartments, including those in shared accommodation who have underlying health conditions.
Moving families into self-catering homes should be a priority, he says.
Homeless services are overwhelmed by the crisis, says Flynn. “Everything is just in complete and utter turmoil. It is pandemonium.”
“There are thousands of homes that are empty and ready for occupation in Dublin, says Francis Doherty, deputy director of housing and communications, with the Peter McVerry Trust.
“There could definitely be an appeal made to the larger institutional bodies, the banks and larger private investors to see if they have any units available,” he says.
“The Irish banks own around 1,500 vacant homes,” says Doherty. “They are very slow at releasing them.”
A spokesperson for Ulster Bank said it has only “a very small number of empty properties” and “regularly” engages with the Housing Agency when they’re ready for sale on a first refusal basis.
A spokesperson for AIB said it had only 50 homes in Dublin. Other banks didn’t respond to queries in time for publication.
Doherty says that there are also the institutional landlords, the Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), which own a lot of vacant apartments in Dublin.
Commercial aparthotels like Staycity could be another source, says Doherty. Or other holiday homes and other short-term-let apartments, he said.
The DRHE and the Department of Housing didn’t respond to questions about whether any of these options are being considered for homeless families, in light of the current crisis.
Labour Councillor Gilliland says that the DRHE is making every effort to source more suitable accommodation for families and that all social housing allocations are now going to homeless families.
Gilliland is appealing to Airbnb landlords, who may have lost out on tourism business, to come forward and accept HAP tenants instead, she says.
The DRHE don’t book apartments on Airbnb, due to the short-term nature of the accommodation, but they do try to contact all types of landlords, she says.
“They would rather contact the owner directly and try and get at least a six-month lease because there are concerns around taking a family out of a hub and then putting them somewhere for three weeks,” she says.