By Laura Lynott @
She is almost a household name as the single strongest homeless voice in Ireland – but as Erica Fleming marks exactly one year living in a hotel with her young daughter – the mother reveals “I’m no longer the woman who needed to be hugged by the hotel housekeeper.”
Erica, 30-year-old mother to Emily, 9, admits as she sits on a red cushioned hotel chair, shifting her eyes in to the distance to the building work across the street – that she fully expects to be homeless and living in a hotel for another year due to a “lack of will from the Government,” to build social housing.
The part-time office worker explains that she has is watching as the second private housing estate, with homes worth up to €400,000 – is near completion across the road. She points to the building work and a huge sign advertising the idyllic turn-key homes with a wry look on her face.
“You see they (the Irish Government) say they can’t build social housing quickly, yet in the 12 months I have been living in a hotel with my daughter, sharing the same double bed, living in a tiny space – they have thrown up this, now the second estate full of family homes.
“The difference is these are private homes at top prices. They aren’t social housing. Money is what matters in this country.”
It is only when you spend time sitting in the small hotel room, with only enough room for a double bed, a dressing table, and a TV, that you realise how claustrophobic life must be for a young mother and a child, so full of life, about to turn 10.
Erica explains that when she came to the hotel on July 8, 2015 – exactly one year today – she felt her world had collapsed. She knew nothing of homelessness and readily admits she didn’t think too much about such social issues plaguing the hidden underbelly of Ireland.
As any mother, she had been too busy working, providing for her child, to think beyond that. She wanted to be a heroine for Emily, her only child, a young girl who so clearly adores her. But becoming homeless was not in the plan for her small family unit.
And Emily clung to her mother to understand what had become of them – though the truth was Erica didn’t even know at that point how she could get through the trauma of living out of a suitcase in a hotel.
“When we arrived at the hotel on that first day, I was absolutely lost. How do you explain that to your child? You can’t. I broke down in tears. I was so low, so lost. The housekeeper saw I needed someone. She put her arm round me. Just that act of absolute kindness, care, helped to give me strength, to get through that first day – and I will never forget her for that – but I didn’t know where we were going to go from there.
“At the start of all of this, the council said it would be six to eight months and then they kept moving the goal posts. When we got to six months, it was then 12 months and now I believe we could be living in a hotel for another year. That’s how bad it is – and there’s no urgency from the Government to help us. I predict within less than a year women and children will actually be sleeping rough in Dublin because where is the Government action to build social homes? There is none.”
Though Erica entered the hotel a crumbling figure, who felt she had lost everything, it seems adversity has turned a mother in to a strong civil rights campaigner, a voice for those who are too lost or vulnerable to speak out.
“On that first day I was so grateful to the housekeeper. I needed her at that time. I never thought of myself as strong at that time but now I am because the decision to take a stand and speak out was the day I became stronger. Now 12 months on I’m a different person.”
The “stand” Erica is taking describes when she agreed to film the RTE TV documentary, My Homeless Family, a programme that lifted the lid on the scandal of mothers and children living in hotel rooms, as the housing crisis deepened in a state that had neglected to build enough social housing over recent decades.
The show helped Erica find a platform and she set up the #SidebySide campaign on Twitter, gaining an army of supporters and holding meetings and protests to call for Government action to end homelessness. The mother was thrown in to the spotlight and became a familiar face on TV, her voice heard by thousands on day-time radio and her story repeatedly covered by newspapers.
And Erica and Emily’s story is starting to make waves outside of Ireland too. She has just been recorded by BBC Radio 4 – one of the most popular stations in the UK – as a respected voice on the increasing homeless crisis in Ireland and a Belgian TV crew filmed the mother in recent days as she exposed the housing debacle in Dublin.
“I am a different woman to the one that existed 12 months ago. She lived in a bubble and didn’t know anything outside of her own life. I didn’t think about social issues because it didn’t affect me and Emily.
“I have been exposed to so much since then. I had to become harder, stronger, not just for me – but for the people contacting, looking for hope.”
Day and night Erica answers messages of despair over Twitter and Facebook, from women and men, just like her, who have found themselves homeless or in desperate circumstances.
“They are looking to me for help and guidance. I tell them what to do, who to go to, to try to get help.”
For most women, it is enough to be a mother and being a single mother is an even tougher job – but for Erica, it seems despite life throwing her a curve ball – all she wants to do is cure the world round her. To help those most in need. If she was not socially aware one year ago, the campaigner certainly is today.
But that woman who fell to pieces this day last year, that vulnerable soul, is still somewhere deep buried inside the steely eyed campaigner. Erica very rarely cries but today, when she speaks of Emily, the tears flow without control. She is, after all, still a mother beyond all else – still fighting so hard to be a heroine for Emily.
“We’re human beings. That’s been forgotten,” Erica said. “We are not statistics. There are now almost 2,000 children homeless in this state. My child is not number 3, 50, or 92,” Erica says getting increasingly emotional. “My child is a real person, with a brain, feelings and she is tuned in to what is happening to us. This shouldn’t be affecting her future. We haven’t done anything wrong.”
It is heartbreaking to listen as the mother break down for the first time in months. This is a side that Erica hides well as she fights the system that has let her and Emily down so badly.
Rents have spiralled in the Irish capital. In some parts of Dublin they are now as high as €2,600-a-month for a family home. Such prices are completely out of reach for many and none more than single parents like Erica, who belongs to the poorest group of individuals in the state.
It is agonizing to hear that the one thing Erica’s young daughter wants – seems so far beyond grasp. While most children her age are blissfully ignorant about bills, mortgages, rent, and the world of adult responsibility – this is not the case for Emily.
“We have a really good bond and everything is fine between us,” Erica said of Emily, “But having friends round is a problem. And I know she really wants her own room.
“Last year Emily started saving in a box, just 20 cents at a time. She told me she was saving for her own room.” Again the wind has been knocked out of this champion’s sails, as her head drops to the floor. Emily is, at the end of it all, Erica’s only concern.
“In July last year, for her birthday, Emily bought a bed set with a duvet cover and a pillow, from money she was given as a gift.
“And still to this day, a year later, it is in packaging. My daughter is still saving and she has no room. She wants to spend her savings on her bedroom and the child still can’t do that.”
In recent days Erica took the step of inviting a friend of Emily’s round to the hotel to play in the room – but sadly the two young girls couldn’t enjoy their childhood freedom. They couldn’t sing and dance or even play tag as children should.
“I was in the bathroom listening to them as they played. I left the room to give them space and the bathroom is the only place for me to go,” Erica said.
“But when I heard the girls getting a bit loud, as children do, I had to ask them to quieten down, because I’m afraid, what if someone complained – what if reception called us up. We are living in a hotel – it isn’t a home and I’m constantly afraid of being told to go.”
And no matter how normalised life in a hotel has become to the small family – who have decorated the room with tiny mementoes of life from before, such as a mother’s make-up and perfume on the dressing table, or childhood colourings tucked neatly in to a hotel picture on the wall – Erica and Emily know this is not how life is supposed to be.
And though she may have such a defiant spirit against the machinations of the state right now – Erica still clearly clings on to her sense of Irishness and perhaps a rebellion that is rooted deep inside her. She is particularly fond of the Easter Rising flag she has placed in the corner of the room.
“The weird thing is this is home to us now, even though we know it isn’t right,” Erica said.
“We have just adjusted to it. I take calls in the bathroom when Emily is in the bedroom. You adjust to it or you couldn’t cope. The people who work at the hotel are so good to us; truly I think they try to make our stay as easy as possible.”
And the housekeeper, who first welcomed and comforted Erica, has clearly become somewhat of a maternal figure to Erica and Emily. “She chats away to us when she sees us. She is always asking after Emily and asking to do her hair – she’s a special lady.”
While a female staff member bought ice-cream for Emily, storing it in a hotel fridge, when the child suffered strep throat in recent months. And another female worker brought a bag full to the brim with chocolate eggs and other treats at Easter.
“The hotel staff show an interest in our lives, they don’t have to do it – they show us human kindness and that has really helped me through. I couldn’t thank them enough,” Erica said.
But life will never be normal, not within the walls of the hotel, a place packed with American, Australian and British and European tourists and businessmen and women.
“Tourists see us in the lift and ask ‘Where are you from? Are you enjoying your holiday?’ It is easier just to nod and say ‘Yes.’ I can’t exactly tell them the truth – that we are homeless a year, living in this hotel.”
And even breakfast time is far from the comfortable, family setting it should be. “I don’t take Emily down there in her school uniform because people stare at us. It’s clear we aren’t on holiday then. And I am sick of seeing tourists, people I don’t know. It is easier to take breakfast to the room.”
Despite her innate ability to survive no matter what, Erica is angry – and this is a feeling she tries very hard to control.
“We have a roof over our heads, it’s comfortable and our environment isn’t unhealthy but – it’s not a home,” Erica said.
“There’s nowhere to invite Emily’s friends. I have nowhere to offer a visitor a seat. You can’t sit with us and have a chat and a cuppa socially.”
As she looks round the room, showing how small it is, taking steps in her pretty brown, leather sandals across the floor, the mother, announces something that is so very apparent when it is said: “It’s isolating.”
“And where are they?” she asks, once again staring out the window at the steel towers caressing the sky, the beginning of new, expensive family homes. “The Government are all on holiday. I wonder will they spend a week in a hotel.”