On Sunday 29th December, that often dreary in-between period when most of us have eaten and drunk too much, and are wondering how on earth we will find the motivation and appetite to get through the required gluttony of New Years’ Eve, a group of volunteers from Tallaght hosted a party for almost 90 families in homeless accommodation. It was the result of a comment made at a meeting about ‘holiday poverty’ and how vulnerable families especially struggle during those times that so many of us count the days to.
That throw away comment from a Tusla colleague, led to me making a few phone calls and with little other effort, a full Christmas dinner, Santa and gifts for all the children, and an afternoon of activity for the range of age groups joining us, were agreed and sorted within a matter of days. Such is the power of a handful of efficient, organised people who are used to getting the job done*.
Of course, there was a lot of work behind the scenes: the Focus Ireland staff who engaged with the families directly to encourage them to attend; the managers in the commercial hotels who had staff put leaflets under the relevant doors in order to get the information to the right people; the team of volunteers from Citywise Education who planned the games and set up the room; the people who shopped for the four turkeys, several stones of potatoes, 50 selection boxes and books for every child; and of course the group of local sisters who turned out a three course meal to all 90 participants with military precision, making it look easy because they laughed and smiled all the way through.
It was a good thing to do – an important thing to do, and yet I came away unsettled and depressed. The tables were dressed with festive clothes and crackers, but the children didn’t sit and were constantly on the move, distracting their parents and creating many potential trip ups for the volunteers serving the hot food. Of course, I realised, they aren’t used to sitting at a table. There aren’t tables to eat at in hotels rooms. The children haven’t learnt how to sit for a meal.
I noticed four- and five-year olds in pull-up nappies. I watched from a distance, wondering if there were obvious developmental delays to explain this. Of course, I realised, these families don’t have access to laundry facilities. How do you toilet-train your child, with all the inevitable accidents and washing that comes with that, when you have no washing machine, no laundry basket, and indeed, no unending pile of replacement clothes because you can only keep what you can carry? In their position, I wouldn’t prioritise toilet-training either.
When the food was finished, the team of young volunteers, all living in Tallaght West, rounded up the children for various age appropriate activities. Rooms were set up for specific age groups: babies, toddlers, primary school children and over 12’s. There was table tennis and pool; play stations and virtual reality equipment; traditional party games like musical bumps and statues; ball games and colouring; there were volunteers at the ready with books to read and paper to draw on. The place was a hive of activity. Except we couldn’t get the children to leave their parents. Children clung and hid; they sat on laps and under tables; they avoided eye contact and fiercely held onto hands. Any parent knows that it’s not unusual for children to be slow to engage in a new environment; and it’s completely understandable that they need time to settle and gain some confidence. But the majority of young children didn’t leave their parents’ side or would only engage if they could still see their parent.
These are clear indicators of a poor sense of security. Generally, children can comfortably leave their parent if they have confidence that their parent will be there for them when they come back, and that there will be no negative consequences from doing so. Not being able to do this is called separation anxiety. These children can see and feel their parents’ anxiety. They have experienced multiple moves and have no place to call home. With each move they must decide what they can bring and what must be left behind. Children are used to being in the same room with all other family members all of the time: there are no separate bedrooms; there is no kitchen area; there isn’t a living room space where children can play and learn with some independence. They are quite literally, under their parents feet all the time they are ‘home’. Consequently, the children haven’t developed the critical sense of security in themselves or with their family and so they hold tight to what they can.
Some children did engage; they played games and took up the colouring pens with enthusiasm, but again, the developmental delays were apparent in many: speech was far more limited in most children than would be expected for their age; several very young children had cavities instead of baby teeth, a result perhaps of too much processed food and limited dental hygiene; and even holding a crayon was challenging for some children who should have been well able to do so. We know that when our basic needs aren’t met (such as food, warmth, shelter), our bodies struggle to grow, our brains resist absorbing anything but the most essential information, and we protect our energy for only the most necessary of functions. Parents in homelessness often do not have the emotional capacity to offer their children opportunities to learn and play and discover: they are too worn out. It is nigh-on impossible to offer a child a wholesome, healthy diet with little money and absolutely no cooking facilities, so inevitably fast food becomes the norm; and creating space for discovery is difficult in an overcrowded hotel room, with few or no toys, because every few days you have to pack and carry everything you have accumulated.
I have no doubt that many of the children we entertained on that Sunday are doing fine. They will study and play, and make friends and hopefully be confident, articulate and fulfilled. Indeed, there were children who were funny and enthusiastic and curious and articulate, but in many ways, they served to highlight the absence of these characteristics in the majority of the children attending. I deeply worry for those children who have already missed key milestones, and will find it increasingly difficult to catch up. I am concerned for those whose self-esteem is so battered, even at such a young age, that they will struggle to engage and participate. And I fear for those families whose stress levels are so high, and sense of place so absent, that they cannot think or plan beyond the next meal.
The numbers may be down, but the impact and potential long-term consequences remain to be seen.
Childhood Development Initiative, (CDI).
* This event was coordinated by CDI in partnership with Citywise Education, Focus Ireland, and with support from Tusla and the HSE.