by Thomas McCann and Claire Hargaden
Thomas McCann is the Founder and Managing Director of the Traveller Counselling Service
Claire Hargaden is the Operations Manager of the Traveller Counselling Service
We are all aware, to greater and lesser degrees, that to have a safe place to lay one’s head at night is a cornerstone of wellbeing. It is not everything – but without it, everything else becomes immeasurably difficult. But just 33% of Travellers who access supports within the Advocacy service of the Traveller Counsellor Service can identify themselves as appropriately accommodated. Given that Travellers are a Nomadic people, understanding how this has come about it something we all should strive to understand.
Traveller Counsellor Service
At the Traveller Counselling Service, a grass-roots organisation run by and for the Traveller community, and supported by members of the majority settled community, we work hard to maintain our ethos of providing a culturally sensitive and appropriate service to our clients, specifically in the areas of counselling, community development, advocacy and training. We operate through a culturally sensitive lens, taking the norms and values of Traveller culture into account when a client walks through our doors. To neglect to do so, even unconsciously, is to collude with a wider culture that refuses to recognise and respect Traveller culture and way of life and reinforces the racism, exclusion and marginalisation that Travellers have been subjected to by the majority community. Correspondingly, it neglects to see Travellers as equals and full human persons capable of the complete spectrum of human experience.
Part of our holistic practice includes the use of appropriate language. We are not referring to Cant or Gammon (the Traveller language, sometimes known amongst linguists as Shelta), but to choosing language that seeks to include rather than to other, which brings us to our first point. To refer to “housing” for Travellers can create a sense of exclusion or confusion amongst some, and so we prefer to use the term “accommodation” as it encompasses more culturally appropriate ways of living and acknowledges nomadism, which has been a central pillar of Traveller culture and identity for centuries. This is more than just the bricks-and-mortar understanding of accommodation. It is culturally inclusive and helps us to avoid a purely sedentist approach to the term. It refers to a place to live, and rest, and perhaps even flourish.
Travellers in Ireland still live under the paternal legacy of the Irish government’s “Report of the Commission on Itinerancy,” published in 1963, of which the terms of reference are as follows:
- to enquire into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers;
- to examine the economic, educational, health and social problems inherent in their way of life;
- to consider what steps might be taken—
(a) to provide opportunities for a better way of life for itinerants,
(b) to promote their absorption into the general community,
(c) pending such absorption, to reduce to a minimum the disadvantages to themselves and to the community resulting from their itinerant habits and
(d) to improve the position generally; and
- to make recommendations.
The power dynamic at work in such stated intentions, with its inability to consider the Traveller community as worthy in its own right, or when offered the right conditions, inherently self-regulating is deeply galling. But on page 47 of the report, we read the following finding on Traveller mental health in 1960s Ireland:
- In regard to mental health, replies by those in charge of local authority mental hospitals to requests for statistics of the numbers of itinerants who have received treatment and for general observations on the mental health of itinerants have indicated that the number of persons who could be classed as itinerants who are or have been patients in mental hospitals is relatively small. It would appear that the incidence of mental ill-health amongst the itinerant population is not as high as in the settled population.
How things have changed! A few generations on, the State’s commitment to the so-called “absorption” project referenced above means that to be a Traveller in Ireland is now synonymous with suffering mental health difficulties. The catastrophic effect of this mental health epidemic can be seen in the horrifying suicide rate in the community; 82% of Travellers are estimated to have suffered the loss of a loved one to suicide. Despite the best efforts of ourselves, and our many esteemed colleagues within the National Traveller Mental Health Network, to stem the devastating, and apparently lethal, impact of long-term racism, social exclusion and discrimination, the mental health crisis in the Traveller community is getting even worse.
The Traveller Community in 21st Century Ireland
In 2010 the government published the All Ireland Traveller Health Study, carried out by the School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Population Science at University College Dublin. This comprehensive study, which approached every identifiable Traveller family on the island as a potential respondent, took three years to complete and the summary of its findings was in stark contrast to the situation in 1963.
The key health issues for Travellers identified in the report during the consultation process were as follows:
- Environment and poor living conditions.
• Issues related to equality of access to, participation in, and outcome of service provision.
• Right of Travellers to appropriate access to services based on culture and way of life.
• Lifestyle issues.
• Lack of culturally appropriate provision.
• Lack of data on Traveller health and health needs.
• Lack of recognition of Traveller culture and identity.
• Individual and institutional level racism.
• Social exclusion.
In 1987 a Traveller man’s life expectancy at birth was just 61.7 years, significantly less than the 71.6 years of his counterpart in the general population. By the time of this study in 2008 the average life expectancy of a Traveller man had remained static at 61.7 years, while his settled neighbour’s life expectancy had improved by over five years, rising to 76.8; widening the existing gap to over 15 years. Traveller women fare slightly better but still lag behind their counterparts in the settled population, shockingly, by over a decade.
Crucially, the suicide rate in male Travellers was found to be 6.6 times higher than in the general population. This is a shocking statistic, but to the Traveller community, it is anything but a number in a nationwide report. It is multiple empty spaces at family gatherings, the broken-hearted despair of mothers, fathers, children, friends and adult siblings., It is the desperate fear that clutches at the hearts of the community when they watch their loved ones sink into spirals of depression from which many, with nowhere to live, nowhere to employ them and seemingly nothing to look forward to, cannot seem to emerge.
A government whose leadership encourages withdrawing funds from the “bank of Mam and Dad”, embraces a NIMBY attitude when it comes to the establishment of serviced halting sites, and a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” philosophy does little to bring about the transformation in attitudes that is required in order for Travellers to feel that they are a valid and welcome part of Irish society. Traveller organisations have been raising the alarm continuously on these figures since 2008 and of course, in the cases of many activists, for many years prior, and although commitments are undertaken over and over to address the issues, the outcomes – the excessive numbers of deaths due to despair – remain the same.
Traveller Accommodation and Mental Health
While it is impossible to exactly measure the impact of the lack of accommodation for Travellers, we know for sure that it is a significant factor which contributes to this dire reality. A lack of adequate and appropriate housing is now, after all, a nationwide concern that affects far more people than just those in the Traveller community. Article after article in national media now highlights the nurses, teachers and middle-class professionals who are experiencing homelessness. Successive government’s failure to build social housing decade after decade has finally come home to roost. Homelessness is a devastating experience for anyone which affects a person’s mental and physical health and inhibits their ability to be fully part of society. For someone who is already part of a marginalised group, these effects are amplified. Travellers are over-represented in the homelessness statistics, and many people from the community who are not technically homeless – e.g. in a family hub or shelter – are part of the hidden homeless, living in overcrowded or temporary accommodation provided by family or friends. In addition, Traveller families who are living in emergency homelessness accommodation tend to remain there for longer than others, due to a stated lack of suitable accommodation and because of a lack of will by local authorities to find homes for them. We know of at least one family that has been in emergency accommodation for more than four years. The impact on the mental health of adults in this and similar situations must be compounded by the effects of homelessness on their children.
The Traveller community is often asked what is meant by “appropriate accommodation”. This question is easy to answer in the mainstream: we all know that “homeless hubs”, hostels and hotels are not appropriate accommodation for any human beings who wish to cook and eat communally, who wish to feel safe from predators and undue threat, who wish to steer clear of temptations to addiction, who want a little outdoor space, and the simple luxury of privacy for individuals and families. Yet what is “appropriate” for Travellers still is deemed mysterious – caravans? Barrel topped wagons? Perhaps – for some! But for most it simply means having their needs and the needs of their extended families in their particular circumstances heard and taken into account. Many Travellers now opt for houses and apartments as their preferred dwelling places, with fewer choosing the Nomadic lifestyle of their roots. This is due to several factors, not least the anti-trespass legislation which criminalises nomadism. Given the appalling and overcrowded conditions of so many sites – coupled with the hostility of landowners, local authorities and the Gardaí to Travellers – is this really surprising? This should not be mistaken for a desire to be settled – far from it. It is simply the natural human desire for warmth, safety, affordability, accessibility and better conditions.
So many sites are tucked away at the edges of towns, in many cases with no paths, and no access to public transport. Emergency services, postal workers and other service providers struggle to access and deliver basic services to these destinations. Waste disposal is a constant battle for residents with refuse companies declining to attend. Even running water – the very basis of all life – can be lacking, and heating bills generated by plug-in electrical heaters rack up to completely unmanageable levels, literally leaving families in the dark and the cold. Given that finding a social housing placement on a site can and does happen far more quickly than waiting for a house or apartment (our Advocacy service reports that this can be realised within a year or two, versus the potential wait of, in some cases, up to 15 years, for a standard house) really does beg the question as to why sites cannot be appropriately serviced, and quickly, especially given that since the year 2000, €69 million allotted for Traveller accommodation has gone unspent. In 2019, just €8.6 million of the €13 million allocated was spent, while in 2018 and 2017 almost 50% of the financial allocations nationally were left unspent. According to the Irish Times, in 2018, 10 local authorities did not spend anything at all. This speaks for itself.
There is no will to provide appropriate accommodation to Travellers – anywhere. There is money. There is need. But there is no political desire – reflecting perhaps the views of many in the mainstream population – and it is difficult to look these numbers in face and not call it racism. It is even more difficult to look into the faces of Traveller children and not worry desperately about the difficulties that they will face once they move outside the safety of their immediate and extended family.
In 2020 the Department of the Environment and Local Government published their temporary halting site set-up manifesto in Guidelines for Accommodating Transient Traveller Families. In Section 2.12 we read:
Basic services and facilities could include:
- a water supply (piped or a tank);
• portable toilet and washing facilities (shower and/or wash-hand basin);
• waste collection service;
• hard surface for caravans.
In some cases it may be practicable to connect the portable toilets to an existing sewerage scheme and to provide public lighting and electric supply to families.
Basic services and facilities “could” include. Could include. Not ought to include, or will include, but could. The idea that in a developed country replete with resources basic sanitation can be viewed as an optional extra for a certain cohort of society is quite incomprehensible.
Many Travellers continue to live on sites such as the ones described above, motivated by a deep cultural yearning for proximity to kin, and for some it is preferable than to be placed in a house, in a hostile housing estate, many miles from anyone who knows them, cares for them or will support them. The family, including respect for the older generations and the celebration of marriage and children, is at the heart of Traveller culture. The importance of these values cannot be overstated, and in a context where Travellers find themselves excluded from mainstream services that the settled community take for granted, the safety of the family unit becomes ever more important.
To remove an ethnic minority member from their home community if it is not what they desire is sure to fail. These choices, then, are not really choices at all. And yet we know from all other areas of life, that a stable home is the foundation upon which almost all kinds of flourishing is permitted to take root, and so Travellers, who fare worse than their settled counterpart in almost every metric that can be conceived, are always on the back foot. The pull to assimilate therefore is strong, with young people feeling undue pressure to alter accents and dress to “pass off” as settled and avoid the derision and exclusion that can follow their true identity, and the internalised shame that engulfs them as a result of the name-calling and social separation that becomes familiar and commonplace from the earliest days of primary school, far from liberating them, pulls them into crisis, and round, and round, and round we go.
It is easy to get lost in the maze of bureaucratic obstacles that may face a Traveller family seeking appropriate accommodation. Imagine with us a synthesis of a problem that we have encountered in the Advocacy service of the TCS. A family is living in extremely overcrowded conditions, with poor sanitation and intermittent power, on a temporary halting site. The children are removed from the family home by the State due to the poor living conditions and the risk to the children’s health. The parents immediately apply for appropriate accommodation of any kind that can safely accommodate their children. However, the housing authority will only assess the housing needs of the parents – the two adults. As the children do not live with them, the parents cannot make a housing application that takes into account the accommodation needs of their children. To whom can this family turn for help?
In October 2018, the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM), who work tirelessly to achieve their vision of “An Ireland where Travellers are proud of their identity and with their ethnicity recognised, can achieve their fullest potential to play an active role in Irish society” published their Submission to the Development of the Traveller Accommodation Programme 2019-2024. In it, they state that “Travellers are 11 times more likely to become homeless and 50 times more likely to be discriminated against by landlords. There are five times the number of families sharing facilities since legislation to effect – accounting for 4,460 people in overcrowded halting sites and in standard housing.” To be born a Traveller in this country, it seems, is to be born to risks of the gravest kind. How can change be realised? The ITM makes a series of important recommendations to address the accommodation needs of Travellers, which include the following:
- The Repeal of Section 24 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002 which prohibits nomadism and such represents a legal barrier to enactment of Travellers freely expressing their culture and way of life;
- The establishment of an independent Traveller accommodation agency
- the development of a network of transient halting sites in each local authority area for short stays;
- a refurbishment programme that will prioritise some of the worst sites and group housing schemes in the country;
- and the end of quota clauses in Traveller Accommodation Programmes.
These proposals represent concrete recommendations that address the very real, felt material needs of Traveller people who are suffering today. We know that the resources exist to achieve this. What we do not yet know is what can be done to change the hearts and minds of those who harbour hate and resentment towards a community that is dying in droves from the social illnesses of exclusion and discrimination.
The Traveller community is the last cohort that it seems it may be acceptable to hate. But the Traveller community is not one thing. It comprises a diverse people with its own valuable traditions, norms, and ways of being. We in the Traveller Counselling Service, and our friends and allies across the country, will continue to work to bring healing, empowerment and positive mental health to our Traveller brothers and sisters. True, there are costs to this work – both fiscal and social – but we simply cannot afford the alternative.