Homeless and helpless, this is how we treat a very ill child
HE stands in front of four concrete steps leading to the room where his family has lived since being made homeless, the nineyear-old boy with cerebral palsy takes a deep breath and slowly lifts the front of his walker onto the first step. A video posted by his mother to create awareness about child homelessness depicts his brave, heartbreaking determination to conquer the steps.
He doesn’t always win. In May he fell backwards and ended up in hospital receiving stitches in his head.
This is daily life for David – not his real name – and it has been for 20 months. He’s almost 11 and his mother Jamie Harford filmed his painful process in desperation last year and sent it to Dublin City Council. It responded with a promise of a meeting which never materialised.
Shockingly the most recent figures for homelessness in Ireland show 5,046 adults with 2,895 child dependants living in homeless facilities including B&Bs and hotels.
The government response to the growing crisis has included 29 housing strategies in the two years and nine months since a homeless man died in the doorway of a building a stone’s throw from Leinster House.
One strategy is the Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan which is already being reviewed. The fact that just 800 new social houses are to be built this year instead of the stated target of 5,000 gives little reassurance to families like the Harfords.
Speaking to the Irish Mail on Sunday this week, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy was scathing in his critique of the response of some local authorities to homelessness. As the crisis enters its fifth year he says many councils do ‘not appear to understand the urgency here’.
Jamie Harford describes her heartbreak at watching David manoeuvre his walker around narrow spaces and do his homework on the floor as they don’t have room for the equipment which would allow him to sit up.
‘It’s been horrible, I don’t know where to start really. I was with my partner for 10 years. We’re not together any more. We split up, it was the stress of being like this, of trying to live like this and not being able to change anything.’
But her fears now are for her children – she also has a daughter, Sophie, aged three. David’s medical team at the Central Remedial Clinic have written to the council on his behalf three times outlining how essential it is for David to have space for his walker and wheelchair.
But Jamie said that she’s been told her case has been marked as ‘medical priority’ on the housing list since 2011.
‘David’s disability cut off his independence but this is making it worse,’ says Jamie. ‘He’s such an active kid and he loves going outside. He can’t have friends around to play… there’s such a stigma around homelessness.’
Sophie, who was born into homeAS lessness, doesn’t understand that a family can live on their own. Jamie says: ‘It’s hard, I try my best not to cry in front of them but it happens. At night I go into the bathroom and cry, I don’t know if they can hear. I feel like I’m talking about someone else in a nightmare.’
She said: ‘There is no place to cook here, so we’re ordering takeaways all the time, I try to cook but what can you do? My kids, me; we’re all
‘It’s horrible... I don’t know where to start’
putting on weight. All the food you can eat cold is rubbish really, I used to love cooking Sunday dinners. Now I’m peeling potatoes in the bathroom sink. The microwave is there on the dresser; I’m so afraid I’ll burn one of the kids. I take them out as much as I can but in the winter there’s only the cinema really. It costs a fortune.’
The Harfords live in a B&B so receive breakfast but that’s all. Jamie was told this week she is ninth on the list, with the caveat that it’s rare for adapted houses to come up. Last year she was 15th on the list but then dropped to 25th without explanation. The family was plunged into homelessness when Jamie’s partner got a new job which raised their income €60 above the threshold for rental allowance. As a result, their monthly rental payment jumped from €30 – subsidised by a rent allowance – to over €800.
They moved in with Jamie’s grandmother but when Jamie became pregnant they needed more space. Although they qualified for HAP rental support they could not find a landlord to accept this payment.
They accepted emergency accommodation provided by the council but on the very first night Jamie pricked her finger on a needle embedded in the mattress. The council told them to find their own housing and it would pay up to €800 a week for a family-size room, starting on January 5, 2016.
At that rate, the council would have paid in the region of €64,000 since for this unsuitable housing.
In desperation, Jamie has turned to homeless activists for help, and tomorrow her case features in a nationwide campaign for the National Day against Child Homelessness called #mynameis.
A Housing Department spokesman said an action review of the Rebuilding Ireland plan is under way and further action will be discussed at an emergency housing summit next month. A Dublin City Council spokeswoman said ‘it prioritises families and children who have special requirements for the most suitable and accessible accommodation’.
desperate: Young mother Jamie Harford is at her wit’s end
cramped: Jamie’s family of three lives, eats and sleeps in one room
dangerous: The only cooking facility is a bedside microwave