This report is the first time of its kind, looking at the educational impacts of homelessness on children. Important lessons were learnt after the devastating Hurricane Katrina in the US some years ago which left so many families homeless. There it was found that the school played a vital role in enabling children to access support, reducing distress and improving academic achievement. Many of these lessons could be applied in Ireland.
The report shows:
- Children’s basic needs for nutrition, adequate rest and good health are not met when they experience homelessness. The children featured in the report experienced frequent school absences attributed to poor diet, inadequate rest and poor living conditions. The parents surveyed described how infections – including chicken pox, ear infections and head lice – were common, and difficult to treat and manage while living in overcrowded and confined accommodation.
- Across all types of educational provision, parents reported that school was important to their children, not only because of friendships and learning experiences, but also because of the stability and predictability it offered amid the uncertainty and stresses that accompanied their experience of homelessness.
- The majority of parents (17 out of 20) spoke positively about their children’s relationship with teachers and school staff. They described how praise, authentic encouragement and access to in-school supports had assisted children during periods of transition.
- The parents and teachers surveyed repeatedly identified lack of access to a healthy diet as a factor impacting on children’s school attendance and learning. Parents described challenges in providing school lunches while living in emergency accommodation, with some reporting they had to choose between paying for transport to school and feeding their children.
- Thirteen of 19 families surveyed indicated their children had to get up each morning before seven, with three parents waking their children at 5.30am to ensure access to a communal bathroom and allow enough travel time to get to school. Children were said to be fatigued before arriving in school, often sleeping on their morning commute.
- Scarce financial resources, long journeys to and from school, significant transport costs, lack of appropriate facilities for food preparation and storage, and inadequate facilities for sleep and maintaining personal hygiene result in irritability, exhaustion, low self-esteem and feelings of social isolation amongst children experiencing homelessness. This impacts on their school attendance and results in reduced engagement and participation in school life.
- The uncertainty and displacement caused by homelessness result in changes to children’s behaviour, including refusal to eat, increased levels of agitation, crying and comfort-seeking behaviours – with negative repercussions for their education.
The recommendations in the Children’s Rights Alliance report include:
- A ring-fenced fund for schools to provide for the needs of children experiencing homelessness, including psychological assessment and support, extracurricular activities, homework clubs, additional tuition, or wrap-around services delivered within the school premises.
- Increased provision of the Home School Community Liaison programme, and extension of this service to non-DEIS schools with children experiencing homelessness.
- Expansion of the July Education Programme of the Department of Education and Skills – which provides funding to extend the school year by a month for children with severe learning disabilities or autism – to include children experiencing homelessness.
- All temporary and emergency accommodation centres should have appropriately trained staff, safe and secure spaces for rest and sleep, age-appropriate homework and study spaces, adequate facilities for food preparation and storage, and appropriate standards of sanitary accommodation, including private bathrooms and access to washing machines.
- A commitment from Government to provide a specific timeline in which it will end the use of emergency hotel and B&B type accommodation for families with children. The report recommends that families with children should not have to live in emergency or temporary accommodation for more than six months and figures relating to the type of provision and period of homelessness for families should be maintained and published on a monthly basis.
- All schools making provision for children experiencing homelessness should have access to resources and facilities to provide children with regular, nutritious food. Consideration should also be given to mechanisms to support children’s access to nutritionally adequate food outside of school hours – through the development of community-based meal provision within school settings.
- A review by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection of the circumstances of families experiencing homelessness to determine whether an Exceptional Needs Payment would assist with additional education-related costs, particularly at the start of the school year.
The report also includes interesting questionnaires used for the research.
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Children's Rights Alliance