Schoolchildren who are homeless are going to school hungry, tired, and sick, and they feel sad, lonely, and ashamed.
That is according to a study by the Children's Rights Alliance, which has found that all this is damaging their participation and engagement with education.
'Home Works; A Study on the Educational Needs of Children Experiencing Homelessness' focused on the impact of homelessness on children’s educational engagement and attainment.
Nearly 4,000 children are currently homeless in Ireland.
19 families, with 38 children between them, participated in the study, as well as almost 50 principals and teachers from schools attended by homeless children.
Inadequate nutrition and hunger were repeatedly highlighted by parents as a factor affecting their children’s educational participation and learning.
Parents blamed poor dietary provision on a lack of money, a lack of cooking and storage facilities in their temporary accommodation, as well as the long hours they were forced to spend travelling to and from their children’s schools.
These difficulties were most acute, the report found, for families living in private emergency accommodation such as hotels, and bed and breakfasts.
Teachers surveyed as part of the study also identified basic factors such as inadequate sleep, a lack of good food, and inordinate travelling times as the key difficulties damaging the educational experience of homeless children.
Some parents told researchers that although their child’s school provided breakfast, they were unable to avail of it because of the time spent travelling to the school in the mornings.
Speaking at the publication of the report, Noel Kelly of Tusla Education Welfare Services, said there was "a real risk" that children who were homeless would disengage from education services altogether.
He said we had to get away from families having to solve the problems associated with homelessness themselves.
Mr Kelly also said that, in his view, schools were doing everything possible to support children experiencing homelessness.
The report makes a number of recommendations, including additional ring-fenced funding for schools and additional training for teachers.
Expressing support for the recommendations, Mr Kelly said homeless children were experiencing significant trauma and teachers needed to be upskilled to deal with that.
Routines difficult to maintain
The families reported difficulties in establishing and maintaining children's bedtime routines while living in homeless accommodation. They said this led to children being late for school, as well as non-attendance or tiredness during the school day.
Parents described how sharing the same bedroom and noise from other families, as well as from nightclubs and bars, all affected their children’s sleep.
The study consisted of surveys of homeless families, as well as interviews.
Parents also expressed concerns that their children were more sensitive to perceived admonishment and that establishing and maintaining relationships with teachers and classmates became more challenging.
The parents of secondary school students stated that their children had asked them not to disclose their experience of homelessness to their school because of embarrassment or fear of being identified as "different".
Forty-six teachers participated in the Children’s Rights Alliance study, many of whom complained of a sense of helplessness.
They cited times when they may have advocated on behalf of families, doing things such as writing letters of support to housing departments, but found that their actions did not speed up the family’s access to suitable accommodation.
Teachers and school principals said that regardless of supports, pupils living in hotel accommodation for a long time experienced a decline in their mental health and well-being.
Education supports a priority for teachers
Asked to choose from a list of items that might help homeless children in school, teachers said special education supports for those children was the most important resource they needed.
Second to that was ring-fenced funding to support the additional needs of such pupils in schools. Access to support agencies was rated third.
Teachers told researchers that the impact of being homeless affected all aspects of children’s school lives.
Some said that for many homeless children the function of school changed from being a place of learning to being a place of safety, routine, and predictability.
Teachers said poor attendance, and living far away from school, was affecting children’s academic achievement, as well as their social relationships.
They said this was leading in some cases to the development of behavioural problems and to the breakdown of children’s relationships with fellow students and teachers.