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Homeless children relying on takeaways

Trinity research highlights negative impact of food poverty on health and wellbeing of homeless children. Thousands of homeless families are finding it enormously difficult to access healthy food and have normal family meals, according to new research conducted by Trinity academic Dr Michelle Share, senior research fellow in the School of Education.

The new report, Food Access and Nutritional Health Among Families Living in Emergency Homeless Accommodation, was launched by the Director of Investigations at the Ombudsman for Children, Nuala Ward on Wednesday, August 9, 2017. The research was commissioned by Focus Ireland and was jointly funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) and the Department of Health.

The research outlines parents' daily struggle to provide healthy meals for their children and themselves due to the challenging circumstances of living on very low incomes in emergency homeless accommodation. Regimented meal times and the constrained food provision conditions in homeless accommodation services negatively influence children's dietary intake, according to the report. It also found that lack of access to cooking and storage facilities has led to families supplementing their diets with noodles, instant pasta, chicken and chips and pizza.

The research involved in-depth interviews with ten parents living in emergency homeless accommodation and also six service providers involved in the provision of health and social services for people who are homeless. The parents interviewed spoke of huge difficulties finding healthy meals for their children due to restricted times of access to kitchen facilities, communal eating facilities and a lack of storage facilities and utensils for food.

All families interviewed shared a bedroom, and just one of the ten families were provided with breakfast and dinner in their emergency accommodation. All parents highlighted how their children's food was a priority for them and that they went to considerable efforts in challenging circumstances to provide for them. This was clearly shown by parents who always tried to provide fruit for their children to ensure they received vitamins.

Dr Michelle Share commented: "It's not just about food and nutrition: families have to rely on takeaways and convenience foods. It makes it harder for children to develop good eating habits as they have to eat in socially unacceptable circumstances, like dining on the bed, or on the floor, lined up at a counter and sometimes even under CCTV surveillance."

"They get used to dining in communal settings or with tourists - rather than as a family around their own table. All of this means a loss of dignity. On a practical level it can inhibit other important parts of children's lives such as free play and completing homework." Mike Allen, Director of Advocacy in Focus Ireland added: "This report highlights the enormous difficulties faced by the over 1,000 families that are homeless and living in emergency accommodation. But it is also a very positive and forward looking report, setting out useful guidelines and standards which should inform the development of the new Family Homeless Hubs. It also clearly sets out the answer for these families must be homes of their own. "

"This research highlights the complex issues arising in trying to support families that are homeless. It reinforces Focus Ireland's call for a specific homeless sub-strategy for families, with a cast-iron commitment families will not spend more than six months in emergency accommodation."

The key recommendations of the research include:

  • Rules and regulations in relation to the use of kitchens and eating facilities across all emergency accommodation for families need to be flexible to meet the different routines and need for privacy for families and to help avoid 'institutionalization' arising from extended stays in emergency accommodation.
  • All emergency accommodation must provide a kitchen table in a private and appropriately sized space. The challenges families face in the preparation of nutritious meals are primarily due to practical barriers and restricted facilities, rather than any lack of awareness of healthy eating.
  • All emergency accommodation must provide a kitchen table in a private and appropriately-sized space. The challenges families face in the preparation of nutritious meals are primarily due to practical barriers and restricted facilities, rather than any lack of awareness of healthy eating.
  • A set of standards in relation to any premises defined as family emergency accommodation. While the Department of Housing & the DRHE have emphasised the range of improved facilities that will be available in Family Hubs, no standard framework has been published to set out minimum standards to apply to the operation of Hubs. Rebuilding Ireland should outline this.
  • Emergency accommodation must be a temporary measure. No matter what improvements are made in the physical quality and access to services in emergency accommodation, living there still has a detrimental impact on the health and well-being of family members. Over time, poor nutrition can lead to a decline in general health and mental health of families. The most effective improvement in the provision of emergency accommodation is to ensure that it is for the shortest time possible, through the provision of secure and affordable homes.