No one seems to know how many people who are homeless grew up in state care. Or how many young people go straight from state care into homelessness every year.
A spokesperson for Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, hasn’t offered an explanation as to why it doesn’t report on this – even for those children and young people who are still receiving support from them through their aftercare programmes.
Youth homelessness doubled from June 2014 to February 2018, according to a Focus Ireland report. In February 2018, almost 1,000 young people aged between 18 and 24 years old, were homeless in Ireland.
Coming from state care is one of the causes of youth homelessness, says Shane Dunphy, head of social care in Waterford College of Further Education.
“We need to be looking at this as a major causation,” he says. “Homelessness is an incredibly complex issue. There are so many factors involved, but a history of state care is a significant one.”
Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello has been trying to get the data for the Dublin region for a while. “We can only address a problem properly when we understand the scale of it,” he says.
A Bad Parent?
Every year, Tusla discharges hundreds of young people from its care. In 2017, for example, it discharged 534 when they turned 18, an annual review from the agency says.
Since the start of 2018, Empowering People in Care (EPIC) has worked with 59 care-leavers experiencing homelessness, says Karla Charles a policy manager there.
“Care-leavers who are at risk of homelessness are a small, but very vulnerable cohort,” she says. For those who do face that possibility, it’s frightening, she says.
Difficulty finding somewhere to live is one of the most common reasons care leavers come to EPIC for help, Charles says. In 2018, 108 young people asked for assistance with accommodation-related issues, she says.
While some care-leavers struggling to find accommodation end up in homeless services run by Focus Ireland, Crosscare and other charities, there is also another cohort: the “hidden homeless” who might be couch-surfing, she says.
Other young people move into shared houses, or going back to their biological families. “But all of those can break down too,” she says.
Without a strong support network, many of these young people are at serious risk of homelessness, she says.
That insecurity is a point that is also stressed by Aisling Bruen, who has a history of state care and an interest in advocating for the housing needs of care-leavers.
Private rental tenancies and informal accommodation plans can break down, and it is easy to become homeless in the current housing climate, Bruen says.
“People can easily be evicted from their private rental sector tenancies and from approved housing bodies too,” she says. Even if Tusla records a successful discharge, in reality that young person could soon become homeless, she says.
When problems with accommodation arise, care-leavers often don’t have an extended family network to take them in, says Dunphy, of Waterford College of Further Education. “They don’t have any kind of safety net,” he says.
“If I am evicted or I can’t pay my rent there is a network of people – siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents who can take me in for a short time. Kids coming out of state care just don’t have that,” he says.
Faced with the possibility of struggling to keep a roof over their heads, many young people formally being discharged by state care are staying with their foster family.
“We have a higher percentage of young people now that are leaving care and remaining on in their foster family,” says Charles, of EPIC.
Also, says Dunphy, it is fairly common for children to return to their biological families when they reach 18 to avoid homelessness – and this can be very harmful.
“We were working with a family of kids who had been absolutely atrociously abused and neglected,” he says. “One after the other, when they got out of care, they moved back into the home that they had been taken out of in the first place.”
Those young people had few other options. “In the Ireland of today where else are you going to go?” he says.
In 2014, Tusla and the councils put together a joint protocol, aimed at preventing care-leavers from becoming homeless.
Fully assessing the success of the protocol, though, is impossible. Neither the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) nor Tusla collates any data on the issue.
“Tusla publishes a wide range of data on the website which is publicly available,” a spokesperson said. “However, the agency does not collate data on … the number of young people who become homeless.”
They didn’t respond to a query as to why they don’t record the number of young people in their services who are homeless or the number that they discharge into homelessness each year.
Charles of EPIC says this lack of data is part of a larger problem whereby the state neglects to ask the kids it raised how they are getting on in any aspect of life.
“It is the same with education, mental health,” she says. “Even the most negligent parent would know how many of their kids passed the Leaving Cert.”
Ten years ago, the Ryan Report, which examined institutional child abuse, recommended that a longitudinal study be carried out with care-leavers, says Charles.
“From an outcomes perspective we need to be tracking children in care so that we can see where we are falling down in providing the best possible support for young people leaving care,” she says. “It is hugely important.”
Counting, but What?
Some data does exist, it seems. At least for the Dublin area.
If Tusla recorded the number of people that it discharged into homelessness that would only capture part of the problem. So the key to finding out the real links between state care and homelessness lies with the DRHE.
A spokesperson for the DRHE says it does ask homeless people when it first assesses them if they have a history of state care. They record that information in the Pathway Accommodation and Support System (PASS) system, they said.
But there’s a stumbling block. They can’t run reports on that, she says. The computer says no.
So getting the number out of the PASS system would mean going into each homeless person’s file and checking if they’d been in state care, they said.
They don’t have the time to do that, but they plan to upgrade their system and hope that by mid-2020 they will have a new system that will be able to run that report, the spokesperson said.
Costello, the Green Party councillor, said he had hoped that the upgrade would be done by now and he is keen to access this data as soon as possible, he says. “If the PASS system is not fit for purpose then we need to address that.”
There is another problem too. “We will not be recording clients with a history of state care, rather clients with a recent history of state care,” the DRHE spokesperson said.
Only a recent history of state care is relevant to the services they provide, they said, and that they have obligations under General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to only collect data that is relevant to those services.
A spokesperson for DRHE says it has not yet decided how recent the state care should be, in order to be counted in the future stats, when it is able to run reports.
Costello says most people don’t leave home until 26 or 27 nowadays, so he’d like to see the data for anyone in that 18–26 cohort.
It would be useful to know the full number of people in homeless services who have a history of state care “because it highlights the enduring vulnerability of care leavers”, Costello says.
But “the more pressing matter is to ascertain how many young people left care recently and are now homeless, in order to target interventions”, he says.
Dunphy says people raised in state care are increasingly vulnerable to homelessness throughout their lifetime. “I think the question we should be asking is, ‘Do you have a history of state care?’” he says.
There is excessive data collection on young people when they are in care – including literally what they ate for dinner, says Bruen.
Data should only be collected when it is necessary, she says, and in general, she favours reducing how much is recorded.
But the question of whether people who are homeless have a history of state care is something we should collate, she says. “That would be necessary data – because we need to know where people end up.”
She would like to see the full figures including all age ranges, she says.