Walking through the hallways of Edel House, a city centre facility for women and children who are experiencing homelessness, is an extremely sobering affair.
While the shelter is undoubtedly a busy and bustling place in the morning and in the evening, with stressed and overburdened mothers trying to get their little ones to and from school, during the day it is eerily quiet.
The playrooms lie tidy and void of children, though their presence is belied by the drawings displayed prominently on the paint-chipped walls, and the dimly lit corridors smell ever so slightly of disinfectant.
Every so often an adult resident will hurry by, eyes downcast, carrying, perhaps, a load of laundry or a bag of groceries.
There is a sense that everyone here is on their best behaviour – a polite nod and an avoidance of eye contact seems to be the order of the day.
This conduct, while it may seem odd, is actually entirely understandable - those staying at Edel House are, after all, in the midst of experiencing the incredible trauma of homelessness. Idle chit chat in the hall is not high on their list of priorities right now.
The women here, not only are they dealing with the stress of trying to find long term accommodation, during a seemingly never-ending housing crisis no less, but they are also often working through the initial situation which led to their becoming homeless – and all while trying to keep their daily lives running as close to normal as possible.
Manager of Edel House, Colette Foster, said in any other situation people would be bouncing off the walls with the stress of it all. But the residents of Edel House are keenly aware of the fact that if they cause undue disturbance, or present under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they will have to leave. For the vast majority of them, they would have nowhere else to go.
And so, on their best behaviour, they pass, like ships in the night, desperately trying to keep it all together.
For all intents and purposes, the shelter, which is run by Good Shepherd Cork and located on the city's Grattan Street, can be separated into two sections – rooms for single women, and rooms for families.
It's better than being in a hotel and B&B – at least they have kitchen and laundry facilities here – but the rooms are cramped and outdated, admits Colette.
“There are 18 single women here, and seven rooms for them. That means there are between two and three women in every room, in bunk beds. All 18, they share two showers and two toilets. They manage. Having a roof over their head is so important to them that they will manage together in these circumstances so that they don't lose their bed. In a normal life you might get angry or stressed about it, but here they try to control themselves,” she explained.
“As well as that, we also have ten families in family rooms. There are ten adults and 22 children in those families. The largest is a mother with four children and each family unit is in their own room all on top of each other - which is incredibly difficult for them, as you can imagine.”
Of those who present at the shelter, no two are the same. Some find themselves experiencing homelessness as a result of family breakdown, or financial hardship, while others are fleeing domestic abuse. Some are battling drug and alcohol addictions, others are wrestling with their mental health.
Still others do not have the safety net of a family home – maybe there was abuse in the family and they do not want to return to that, maybe they fell out with their parents and are not welcome back, maybe their parents passed away and the family home is now gone, maybe they are not from Ireland and never had any family home here in the first place.
Whatever the reason, whatever the underlying issue, all are bound by a common goal – leaving homelessness behind.
The staff of Edel House, and of the overarching Good Shepherd Cork organisation, are there to make that happen.
A big leap forward in recent months has been the announcement of a brand new facility.
The development, which will cost around €5.2 million will see a new state-of-the-art building take shape on the car park adjacent to the current Edel House. Funding towards the development is being provided by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and Cork City Council. Construction is expected to start early next year and is set to be completed in 2019. After the new building is completed, operations will move there. The current building will then be redeveloped.
“The new building will be more modern and it will mean every woman will have her own room and en suite bathroom, with cooking facilities. They will be more independent and they won't have to deal with the stresses of living on top of another two women,” said Colette.
“The family rooms will also be bigger and they will have two bedrooms as well as a kitchen and living space and a bathroom. So in the redevelopment, there won't be extra beds, but there will be more space for people which will really help their mental health. I remember one Christmas here, there was a child who said he didn't want anything from Santa – all he wanted was to have his own room. People need space to themselves, so this will help with that.”
Part of the plans also includes the construction of an outdoor space for reflection or where children can go to play.
At the moment, there is no such space at Edel House – staff say the children can become very “cooped up” as a result. This frustration can often come out in the form of aggression – they believe an outdoor space to facilitate play will help the mental health of the children a huge amount as well.
While the redevelopment is a positive move, it's purpose is to ease the pressure put on residents – it won't stem the tide of people flooding in the door.
The constant stream will not be alleviated for at least two years, Colette argued.
“I think it will take that long before we see any change. I know Simon Coveney is developing homeless hubs in Cork and Dublin, which is great, but it's not really a long term solution. So until the supply issue is solved, it's going to be very hard to end the amount of families entering homelessness,” she said.
“We're seeing that people are definitely staying here longer. Occupancy at the moment is at around 110%. Now, there is always a move on... it's very rare that there would be a week where someone doesn't leave, but it is slow.”
“People are just finding it harder and harder to find private rented accommodation, especially large families. We have had a number of families move to local authority housing, which is good, but before, if a family wanted to move to private rented, they'd be able to find it. Whereas now they can't. It does get very demoralising... and it can be very emotional for people... but nobody stays here forever. That's what we always try to remember.”
Edel House is run by Good Shepherd Cork which is a registered charity that works with women and children who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness. It provides a continuum of care from emergency accommodation to long term supported housing, support and advocacy, and education and development.
Donations and fundraising are essential to their ability to provide these services. If you would like to support them, you can donate online at www.goodshepherdcork.ie/make-a-donation. For more information about Edel House call 021 4274240.
Women from all ages and all backgrounds have found themselves presenting at Edel House over the years, including elderly women over the age of 70.
“It's not that common, but it does happen. It is heartbreaking to see it, but the one positive of it is that it's usually quite easy to move them on and to source accommodation for them,” explains Colette Foster, manager of Edel House.
“S.H.A.R.E., a housing support charity for elderly people, they have been able to help a lot of older women who have come through here.”
Colette explained that, just like other age groups, the reasons for elderly people becoming homeless can be very varied.
“Sometimes they might not be from Ireland. Other times maybe they were living with a daughter in their house and the house has become overcrowded,” she said.
“Or maybe they have been in the hospital for a period of time and have now come out but the home house, in the meantime, has become uninhabitable. They're not always very straightforward cases, to be honest.”
No matter who presents, or what time of the day or night they present at, someone will be at Edel House to greet them.
“Again, it's rare enough for a woman to come here in the middle of the night, but it does happen. And in those circumstances they are quite often very upset because something will have just happened. We have two sleep over staff every night, so they would be there to help,” said Colette.
“We'd bring them in and try and source them something here or give them information.”
One problem, however, is that the shelter does not accommodate male children over the age of 13.
“Initially I did query that rule, and we did take slightly older boys. But it just didn't work. For older boys to be contained within Edel House just wasn't possible. It almost became dangerous because they had a frustration and an anxiety which could not survive in one room with mom and siblings,” said Colette.
“So, for their own well-being, this isn't the best place for them. They stay in hotels and in B&Bs with their mother instead, and we support them there. We also have apartments we can put them in if they are not occupied. Those are a great option for families with children we can't take into Edel House. We would hope there would be more like them into the future as well.”
While residents of Edel House generally abide by the rules, a number of the women housed within its walls are battling with drug and alcohol addiction.
Though the staff are conscious of this and afford compassion to these individuals, there are strict rules around drug and alcohol use.
In the past, residents have been ejected as a result of breaking these rules.
“We are very strict on that. We have to be. There are 23 children here and we have a duty of care to them. We have to protect them and make sure they're safe within their experience of homelessness,” said Edel House manager Colette Foster.
“But it's not that somebody would be discharged to the streets, we would refer them back to the homeless persons unit or something like that. But yes, we do have strict rules around drug and alcohol use, and they are enforced. If you have one rule for one person and another rule for someone else then it will just become unmanageable.”
In general, Colette said she would love to employ a person on site to help residents with drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental health issues.
“We have had experiences of women coming in here and maybe their children have been taken into care, or maybe they've just handed over their last bottle of wine, for example, and they want to change their lives. And we know this, but we're just kind of struggling then to get them into different services,” she said.
“Addiction and mental health are the two really that we struggle with. We're trying to accommodate people who are trying to battle addictions or are trying to mind their mental health but they're not necessarily linked in to services. If we had somebody in-house who could just help us by helping the women that are here, that would be fantastic.”
Colette said the knock-on effect would be that people are able to deal with their issues faster, and exit homelessness quicker – and that this would then free up beds for emergency situations.
“It would make a lot more sense. Hopefully, we will be able to provide that in the future.”
This is a vision shared by Good Shepherd Cork CEO Allison Aldred.
“I'd like to see us being able to access more funding to expand the services. It would be great for us to be able to provide addiction support within the service. A proportion of the women within the service have addiction problems and a proportion have mental health problems and it would be really valuable for us to be able to employ somebody to provide that support in-house,” she said.
“It would be terrific because the services out there are really overstretched. So we're sending people with mental health issues to a mental health service, knowing it's really overstretched and that they may not be seen for months. That's what I'd like going forward, to be able to make the case for the additional resources that would allow us to provide more dedicated services within Good Shepherd Cork to help the women that we work with. More of that continuum of care.”