The beginning of the month of May is here and today I experienced three crocodiles of excited schoolchildren making their hop-skip-jump way past me with teachers and parents taking up the head and tail. It is not yet 10.00 a.m. The academic year is virtually over.
Getting out from school is one thing but thoughts of the approaching summer holidays with sleep-ins, sleep-overs, sea, sand and sun, rush into the minds of youngsters in May, making them giddy and inattentive. ‘Classrooms without walls’ are the answer to squirming, restless children so teachers plan field trips and out they all go.
But there’s another reality for more than 4,000 children in Ireland. Thoughts, of months with no school, fill them with dread. They are the children who have no place to call ‘home.’ Many of them share one hotel room with parent/parents and siblings. Their space outside school is claustrophobic. They are constantly reminded by anxious, stressed adults, “Be quiet.” “Keep your voices down.” “Don’t jump on the beds.” “Turn that music down.” They are forced to live in strait jackets of respectability, invisible to other ‘normal’ hotel guests. Not allowed to play on the narrow corridors outside their hotel room.
Much of the research, on the importance of play, shows its relationship to the development of children’s thinking. Through play, they learn to construct new knowledge by using what they already know; they develop basic literary and social skills; they make sense of the world. Unstructured, freely-chosen play is a testing ground for life. When children are asked about the activities that make them happy, they invariably say, “Playing with friends.”
Experts tell us that the loss of play in the lives of children results in clinical depression or anxiety. Confining children to an hotel room for a lengthy period of time is a recipe for later psychological and social problems. Why then are we allowing this situation to be normalised? Why aren’t we demanding that our government should take immediate action to address the crisis of homelessness in our country?
A year and a half ago, Fintan O’ Toole wrote an opinion piece in the Irish Times in which he claimed that “the continuing rise of homelessness is a result of political decisions to flog housing off to vulture funds, to stop building social housing, to leave people to the tender mercies of an often rapacious private market.” He went on to say that homelessness is normal because it has been normalised. He dared to say that there is no housing “crisis” because a crisis is the moment when a problem has to be resolved. So he asked us to be imaginative, “Remember in 2001 when a foot-and-mouth outbreak was confirmed in Northern Ireland? Remember how every nerve and sinew of the entire state was brought to bear on making sure it didn’t spread? Just think of our homeless children as sick cattle and we’ll have ourselves a proper crisis.”
Is this an exaggeration on Fintan’s part? I don’t think so. Response to a crisis requires an urgent, sharp focus. Things do not happen by chance. Truthful data must be available. A coalition is required of leaders who can put together a process that works and that is committed to outcomes. It’s not good enough for people to shake their heads and say, ”There’s no political will to end homelessness.”
We are in a crisis! We must respond in crisis mode. After all, housing is a pre-condition for everything that children need for healthy lives. Surely that is reason enough to design an enlightened, national response. Let’s do it!
President George H.W. Bush, Senior, as Principal of a School
of Excellence (1990).
She is presently retired in Dublin, Ireland, but volunteers in
JUST (Jesuit University Support and Training), a tutorial
Programme, in Ballymun, for adults seeking access to
Third Level Education.