I think we are all in agreement that homelessness is destroying lives in Ireland. As many as 3,000 children now live in emergency accommodation, which is profoundly shocking because we have been told that resources are not an issue for this crisis.
As a physician I have considered the human cost of this crisis, including research from Harvard University. I have learned that the type of scenarios that many of these children face can be toxic to their developing brains. First, the research is clear that “strong, frequent, or prolonged adverse experiences” lead to excessive cortisol and disrupts developing brain circuits.
Second, and significantly, early adversity can lead to lifelong problems, developmental delays and a “cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health”. Of course, stigma goes hand in hand with homelessness.
Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. All of us will remember a time when we felt extremely self-conscious. We worried whether anyone would notice that one had the same schoolbag, pencil case or, indeed, uniform that was handed down from an older sibling or cousin, or that one stayed outside at lunchtime because one had no money for the tuck shop and all the while hoping nobody would notice. Thankfully, these experiences for many of us were transient and short lived.
Let us imagine how it feels to be a homeless child. What does that do to one’s self-esteem? There would a stigma due to being unable to invite one’s friends back to one’s house for a game of football. That stigma is corrosive to a young brain.
In 2013, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, apologised unreservedly to the women who suffered the stigma of the Magdalen laundries. In 1999, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, apologised unreservedly for the stigma of those victims of institutional abuse.
Who will be the Taoiseach when an unreserved apology is given to the children trapped in homelessness? That day will come unless we, as legislators, act swiftly and decisively. In many cases these children need immediate psychological support because the damage being visited upon them by this stigma is profound. It will last a lifetime and it will, undoubtedly, leave indelible mental scars.
I call on the Deputy Leader to facilitate a debate on homelessness, how it pertains to young children and the psychological effects on same.
Seanad Éireann 3rd October 2017