HOMELESS children in Laois have to travel from Co Offaly to attend school because there is no emergency hostel in this county. a
Their plight was described as “harrowing” at the latest meeting of Laois County Council, where the failure to provide an emergency accommodation centre for families in Laois was strongly condemned.
Cllr Catherine Fitzgerald said: “I find it harrowing that there are children in this situation. They are in emergency accommodation in Tullamore and have to get a bus to attend school here, as they can’t be accommodated in Laois.”
Latest figures presented by council chief executive John Mulholland show that Laois had 24 adults and 14 children living in emergency accommodation on 31 August last. As Laois does not have an emergency hostel, many of these children and adults had to stay in a hostel in Tullamore, while some went to local B&Bs or hotels.
Cllr Fitzgerald pointed out that 31 August was a time when children were going back to school after the summer holidays. Instead of being housed in their local areas, they had to get a bus from Tullamore to attend schools across Laois, or their parents had to find some other way to get them from Co Offaly to schools in this county.
She said: “I don’t know how any family could organise themselves to buy school books and get children back to school in those circumstances. We have to sort this out. It’s a very serious issue and a huge social issue. In time, we will be suffering from the effects of this neglect.”
Cllr Fitzgerald asked whether the county council had any intention of providing an emergency accommodation centre in Laois for homeless children, especially school-going children.
Council director of services Michael Rainey replied that homelessness is managed on a regional basis, so Laois County Council does not have control over the provision of emergency accommodation. He confirmed that some children are in emergency accommodation outside the county, because no places are available for them in Laois. He also said he could not give any assurance that this situation would change in the short term.
He told cllr Fitzgerald: “You are looking for an assurance that children will never have to be in homeless accommodation outside the county and that is not an assurance we can give at the moment.”
Mr Rainey said the council has used transitional accommodation within the county where possible. In terms of the overall social housing situation, he said the shortage of private rental accommodation is a big problem in Laois. On the plus side, he said a homeless placement officer for Laois-Offaly has done “great work” and will be appointed to Laois full-time within the next few weeks.
Disappointed with the response, cllr Fitzgerald said: “We’re sitting here now with homeless children in emergency accommodation, 14 of them on 31 August. Parents are getting small children up very early in the morning to get the bus from Tullamore for school. One of the main responsibilities of a county council is housing. I don’t think it’s impossible for us to aim this year to build somewhere ourselves for emergency accommodation for children.”
The Portlaoise councillor argued that a regional approach to homelessness didn’t make sense. She felt the county council simply didn’t have the will to provide purpose-built emergency accommodation.
Mr Rainey replied: “It’s easy to say that, but that’s the way the government has it set up. We don’t have the freedom to come in and do that (build emergency accommodation) because it is set up regionally.”
Council chairman cllr Willie Aird recalled that back in 2003, the council decided to buy four houses in different locations rather than provide one centre for families fleeing domestic violence, as it was feared that there would be a stigma attached to a refuge or hostel-type accommodation. He felt there should be a similar approach to homelessness. Cllr Aird said: “I would prefer an unidentified location for people suffering in this way.”
Mr Rainey outlined a variety of measures the council is taking to reduce homelessness, including construction of more than 180 new social houses across the county, CPOs of vacant homes and partnerships with voluntary housing bodies. He said: “As far as I’m concerned, housing is our main priority.”
It was agreed that emergency accommodation would be discussed at an upcoming council SPC (strategic policy committee) meeting on housing.
The latest figures also show that 35 people presented as homeless in Laois last August alone, giving a total of 210 for the full year up to 31 August. There were five emergency presentations in August, giving a total of 37 for the first eight months of the year.
Overall, 902 people were on the Laois housing list at the end of July 2019, a massive drop from 1,700 in 2017. A total of 397 housing allocations were made by the council since 2017. A total of 949 applicants signed up to HAP (Housing Assistance Payments) and 788 of those remained active at the end of last July.