'It breaks my heart': School principal says living in emergency accommodation having huge impact on lives of children 

'It breaks my heart': School principal says living in emergency accommodation having huge impact on lives of children 

"It breaks my heart, pure and simple, to send some of these children out the door each afternoon into a world of homelessness, insecurity, and uncertainty." 

IT is “simply unacceptable” that children across Ireland are experiencing homelessness, a Cork principal has said, expressing her anger and upset at the situation.

Nickie Egan, principal of North Presentation Primary School on Gerald Griffin St, has encouraged her staff to become more aware of the difficulties facing homeless students, and those experiencing other issues, in a bid to aid their development.

There were 9,731 homeless people in Ireland in the days either side of Christmas last year.

The number of homeless families has increased by 280% since December 2014, and more than one in three people in emergency accommodation in Ireland is a child.

North Presentation is a Deis school, defined by the Department of Education as “schools in which the average socio-economic background of students is below the national average”.

Three families attending the school are currently experiencing homelessness, but at one point that number was as high as 10.

Ms Egan told The Echo: “There are a multitude of problems in all schools, I imagine, but in our particular circumstances we deal on a daily basis with socio- economic disadvantage, educational disadvantage, homelessness, broken and fractured families, a huge pupil and parent population of families from migrant backgrounds, English as an additional language, and a vast amount of children on special needs and mental health waiting lists for two years or more.”

She added that the fact that children are homeless across Ireland “upsets me and angers me deeply on a daily basis”.

“It is a situation of hopelessness, as well as homelessness, that no child should ever ever be in, especially in a country with the financial resources that we have here in Ireland,” she said. “It is simply unacceptable.

“It breaks my heart, pure and simple, to send some of these children out the door each afternoon into a world of homelessness, insecurity, and uncertainty.

“Many have inadequate washing facilities, spend huge amounts of time walking the streets, have no facilities for a home-cooked meal or a quiet place to do homework, are separated from former friends.. the list goes on.”

Bunker beds in a family room at Edel House Picture: Shamim Malekmian
Bunker beds in a family room at Edel House Picture: Shamim Malekmian

Ms Egan said that the school does its best to try to overcome some of the challenges facing homeless students and their families.

“We strive to do our best for these families,” she said.

“We have washing and drying facilities here and the parents can access them at any time.

“We also facilitate the parents who would like to come to our parents’ room to cook a meal for their family themselves.

“They can then heat this up later in the day in their B&B rooms, and we provide many with their breakfast at school.

“Often these accommodations are far from the school and we do help out with rain gear for the children to help with the journey.

“It can, we find, lead to increased absenteeism as well as a dramatic reduction in the academic achievements of many,” she said.

Ms Egan explained that, as students get older, they become keenly aware of the fact that some of their peers are homeless.

“Many of our children are too young to have that level of empathy with their classmates, or do not know of the living conditions of their classmates,” she said.

“As they get older, however, in our more senior classes, they do stress about it — both on behalf of their friends, and with the added worry that it may also happen to them.

“What we have to bear in mind here in school though, is that any positive interaction, relationship, and communication in a child’s life can have a difference and make a difference — this comes back again to the reason we are so anxious to become more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) aware and to build both our and the children’s resilience.

“Even with limited resources we all have the capacity to be there for someone,” Ms Egan added. The various challenges facing the school population led to Ms Egan’s desire to become more aware of and understanding of children’s individual circumstances, whatever they may be.

The Lord Mayor Cllr John Sheehan with Nickie Egan, (right) principal North Presentation primary school and Dr. Maeve Hurley , CEO and founder Cork training charity ,Ag Eisteacht at the screening of the critically-acclaimed documentary, ‘Resilience: The Biology of Stress & the Science of Hope’. for staff at North Presentation Primary School on Gerald Griffin Street Picture: Eddie O'Hare
The Lord Mayor Cllr John Sheehan with Nickie Egan, (right) principal North Presentation primary school and Dr. Maeve Hurley , CEO and founder Cork training charity ,Ag Eisteacht at the screening of the critically-acclaimed documentary, ‘Resilience: The Biology of Stress & the Science of Hope’. for staff at North Presentation Primary School on Gerald Griffin Street Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Two years ago, she completed a teachers’ learning course with Cork-based training charity ‘Ag Eisteacht’.

The training focuses on teachers’ ability to be more aware of ACEs and their impact, how to combat them, and the importance of building relationships.

“The message resonated with me,” said Ms Egan.

“The idea that we have always tried to foster here in North Pres about ‘being there’ for children and their families in an appropriate way and to realise that we can make a difference through our relationships with these children.

“We need to build the skills within ourselves to enable these children and families to become empowered, to help them realise they have an important role to play in their own lives and destiny, and that they do within themselves have these skills,” she said.

“When we are ACE-aware we can understand some of the behaviours we are seeing and experiencing.

“When we understand what is causing a behaviour, it is a huge step towards compassion, communication, help, and empowerment.”

Staff at North Presentation attended an event hosted by Ag Eisteacht last week.

The aim was to raise awareness of the impact of early childhood experiences, particularly those of adversity, on children’s development, and to facilitate a discussion on how the school community might respond.

As well as catering for students who are experiencing homelessness, North Presentation Primary School also houses an Early Start unit and has a dedicated room for parents, to provide a welcoming space, sustenance, and practical support including washing and drying facilities.

Ten of Ms Egan’s staff have subsequently completed the training, which shares insight into how quality relationships can act as both a protective factor and a buffer in positive health and wellbeing outcomes.

“Ag Eisteacht’s training has helped us to manage difficult conversations and to engage with, listen to, and empower people who turn to us,” she said.

“It has also given us a framework to look after our own boundaries and wellbeing.

“To be there as a buffer for anyone, and particularly those who may have experienced ACEs, takes awareness, first and foremost, but then the skills to build relationships.”

Ms Egan’s vision is that more of her staff will undertake Ag Eisteacht’s intervention training and workshops for schools this year.

Ag Eisteacht’s ABLE five-day summer 2020 training course for primary and secondary school teachers and SNAs will run in July and August.

The charity also has a choice of six different two to four-hour workshops running throughout the year.

They range from ‘an introduction to managing conflict in the school community’ to ‘building rapport and listening actively to parents and colleagues’.

Suitable for continuous professional development purposes, the workshops are held in schools and at a time to suit individual schools.

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