Institutional Impulses in Ireland

ocoThe Ombudsman for Children’s report on testimonies from children living in family hubs provides yet further evidence of Ireland’s impulse to institutionalise persons deemed problematic by society. Institutionalisation of homelessness is nothing new in Ireland, indeed key focus of many organisations within the homeless sector has always been an institutional response to homelessness, never as such a ‘home first’ response (although this is changing).

Albeit writing on Ireland’s direct provision system, Zoe O’Reilly’s analysis could easily apply to persons condemned to family hubs:

(1) The persons institutionalised within family hubs as societal waste, viewed as feckless and responsible for their own situation,

(2) Supposedly time-limited emergency responses becoming normalised and moving from the exception to the everyday,

(3) Prolonged waiting with no end date, whereby family hubs have the capacity to become sites of ‘permanent temporariness’,

(4) Significant control over aspects of lives of adults, wherein societal norms of adult responsibility for children displaced, to a degree, by centre managers.

asylum archiveLike direct provision, family hubs can be regarded as a ‘total institution’ in the sense utilized by Vukasin Nedeljkovic. whereby these family hubs are both within communities, but very much outside the communities that they are based in.

The lived experience of children in family hubs provide testament to the strangeness of such institutions to enable the enjoyment of family life, as Cristina (15) and Lara (13) state,

“No visitors allowed- it feels like we are in a cage because no one can visit us.”

Anna (16) provides some glimpse life within family hubs,

It’s a place we live in with bedrooms and bathrooms, but it’s not a home I enjoy
coming back to. I don’t want to cry or anything … coming back from school you
are just sitting in the bedroom …

The frustration of being placed within an institution such as a family hub, attempting to process and understand how you may have ended up here is encapsulated by Sean (16), frustrated with being in such an alien environment,

Like – it affects me sometimes. Well – I’d be on my phone or something and
then like bleedin’ – I’ll just sit there and just think like, ‘Fuck I’m homeless’ do you
know what I mean? I’ll say I’m actually in the situation where I really, we really
have nothing. Do you know what I mean? All I have is the people around me …
That’s the only thing I have.

rebuilding irelandThe creation of family hubs has its origins in over 30 years of successive governments prioritising the needs of the well-healed, those with disposable property, to ‘fill the gap’ when the State decided to stop providing housing to meet the needs of a segment of the population, and allow market forces to offer surplus private property. 

As Mary Murphy and Rory O’Hearne have documented,

Family hubs are not socially and politically acceptable solutions to this crisis. Families in hubs remain inadequately housed and exposed to institutionalisation. Hidden away, their homelessness may be forgotten and ignored. There is an alternative to hubs – it is straightforward – homes.

However, the feasibility of political and administrative Ireland moving away from over 30 years of long-standing policy surrounding housing provision seems to be ever less likely. Rebuilding Ireland continues the focus on market solutions to issues of housing and home.

The tendency in Ireland to institutionalise, to set individuals away and apart from communities, in circumstances where such institutionalisation is seen as ‘short term’, and the ‘only way’, seems deeply ingrained within our policy responses to societal challenges. Family hubs can only be viewed as part of a continuum of institutionalisation in Ireland, which is endemic within political, administrative, societal and legal approaches to homelessness.