Walk down any street in Cork and ask the passers-by – is it fair for a child to be homeless? To be without their own room? Their own house? Their own toys?
Every single person you ask will surely exclaim that no, of course it's not fair, and it shouldn't happen.
Yet on any given day there are more than 20 children in Cork city in exactly that situation. Over the course of a year here, that number rises to more than 400.
The impact that homelessness has on children is undeniable. Some become withdrawn, attempting to hide their homeless status from teachers and school friends out of embarrassment, while others become so frustrated with their situation that they end up lashing out at those around them.
Their school attendance and performance is often adversely affected, as is their physical well-being and their mental health.
This trauma can have long-lasting effects – homelessness services here say those who experience homelessness as children are more likely to re-enter homelessness as adults.
Considering the fact that the housing crisis isn't going to get a whole lot better in the immediate future, the flood of children experiencing homelessness won't be alleviating any time soon.
So, what can be done?
According to staff members at Edel House, a Cork city centre shelter for women and children experiencing homelessness, the solution, for the moment at least, is to try and make the experience as pleasant as possible.
Those at the facility, which is run by Good Shepherd Cork, have recently set up an innovate new project to try and alleviate the distress homeless children find themselves in.
They have hired a dedicated childcare worker to interact with the children, and that worker also runs a weekly Youth Club.
Though it has only been up and running for a few months now, the Youth Club has quickly become an invaluable asset at the facility, and is the only programme of its kind in the entire country. It has been so successful, in fact, that staff members recently made a presentation on it to other professionals in Dublin.
While it is undoubtedly working wonders for the children who find themselves cooped up in Edel House with no outlet for outside play, the concept of the club is simple – take the children for a few hours every week, ask them what they want to do, and then make sure it happens.
On a particularly fine day, the group might walk to Fitzgerald's Park, or visit a nearby playground. Other times they might choose to open up the main playroom at Edel House and paint or read or play board games.
“It's a huge relief to them, no matter what age they are. They're so cooped out all day, all week, and then they let it all out at the Youth Club on Tuesdays. That's what the space is for,” explained Aoife Dee, who runs the groups.
“We run the group in association with Springboard and TUSLA, they've been very good to us. The children just love it. You can feel it on a Tuesday. They're so excited when they come in from school and they're just waiting to go. It has made a huge difference to them. They get so excited.”
“You can feel the difference when they come back. I was talking to one of the mothers recently about it. She has only been here a couple of weeks, so this was only the second week that her children went to youth club. And she said to me that they were so happy and so tired when they came back and they just came back and went to sleep,” said Aoife.
“It's good to get them to spend time away from mam as well because it's good for her too to have a bit of a break from looking after everything. There's a lot of pressure on the mothers too. When they're all living in the same family room in the shelter, it can be very stressful. They're all on top of each other.”
The difference is also visible if a certain child has missed a weekly Youth Club.
“If they've been away somewhere of a Tuesday and haven't been at the club... you can see the difference in them throughout the week that they've missed it. They're not as happy.”
While Youth Club undoubtedly gives the children something to look forward to each week, and helps expend their high energy levels, it also gives them a space to open up.
“The children, they know that I'm there for them, and I'm their person. They would say to me that they don't really think of me as staff. That would be the way they phrase it,” said Aoife.
“And so if there's something weighing on their mind, during Youth Club is usually when it will come out. You could be in the play room painting, or doing something, you could be talking about something completely different, or not talking at all, and that's when something will be said.”
Aoife explained that quite often the children are put under pressure to talk about their situations. They are sat down, interrogated about if they are ok, if anything is going wrong.
“I find that puts them under too much stress. Additional stress. They won't open up if you do that. So I just tend to have chats with them. That's usually when they open up a bit and you'll find out if something is going on,” she said.
“It's very tough on them. Especially on the older children who will generally try and take some of the pressure off mam and you can see that in them. It's nice then that they can come to the play room and know that they don't have to help look after their younger siblings. It's time just for them, which is huge.”
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.
When a family exits homelessness and leaves Edel House, the children in that family unit are allowed to keep attending the weekly Youth Club for a few more weeks.
This transition period is hugely important, according to childcare worker Aoife Dee – it helps them move into their new lives on a more gradual curve.
“We had a family who left recently and when they left they were so excited because they had gotten a house but one of the children said to me when they left that it will be really weird now to go and will really miss the Youth Club,” said Aoife.
“Some children ask me if they can still talk to me after they leave, and I say yes, just ring. I'd only be delighted to hear from them when they're gone because while it's the best thing for them, I'd also miss them when they leave. Especially if they've been there a while. Some of the children would be in the house more than others, so you might spend a lot of time with certain children. When they go you do miss them. You care about them.”
Aoife, who studied childcare at University College Cork, said she loves her job, but that it can be very emotional at times.
“It can be very emotional because children have total honesty. Sometimes they'll just say something straight out and it will get you right in the heart. The other day the children were talking about their toys, and a little girl, she sat up and just said that she didn't have any. It really got to me. That's her life, that's her reality. It can be very emotional at times,” she said.
“But I think the thing with children who are experiencing homelessness, you see how resilient and strong children can be. They're obviously really vulnerable as well, but they do just get on with things a lot of the time. And I think it's so admirable to be able to watch them do it. Because you think if it was you in that situation you'd be so stressed out. But the children just accept it. Now, obviously it has a huge effect on them later on in life, but when they are very young they just accept it.”
“And it's really rewarding work, working with the children. They will show you that they appreciate you. I was off for like a week and I came back and one of the children said they thought I left and went to a new job. I said no I was just off for a few days and he said thank god. And it's nice to see that you are actually their friend and you are their support. It's lovely.”
While Aoife was not working at the facility prior to the Youth Club being set up, she said other staff members have told her it has made a huge impact on the lives of the children living in Edel House.
“We want to give them the opportunity to speak to somebody, but also to have fun and to give them a few nice memories as well. You don't want them to look back and think about how they were always in the same cramped room, staring at the same four walls. At least now they can remember going to the park, or the playground, or the fire station. It doesn't sound like much, but it's a huge thing for them. And it does genuinely help.”