Every year, 100,000 British children leave home with
absolutely nowhere to go. How can we save them from danger and despair?
Kira Cochrane finds hope in a Chicago refuge.
Our young runaways
The girl hunched beside me on the couch is wearing a
huge black poncho that covers everything except the nervous tap of her
feet. Leila, a pale girl in her late teens, is seventh in a family of 17
kids. She is bipolar, and her mother was a drug addict who committed
suicide just before Thanksgiving last year. Her natural father is blind
and wants nothing to do with her; her stepfather abused her. "I said to
my mum, it's him or me, and she just told me to get out." By the age of
14 Leila was homeless, by 15 she had a son, and by 16 she was regularly
taking crystal meth, cocaine, crack and angel dust. "I did drugs even
before I was on the streets, though," she notes. "I started doing them
with my mum."
Despite all this Leila is feeling pretty good. She
recently completed eight months of rehab. "I feel fine today. Being
homeless obviously isn't great, but when you have somewhere like this to
go" - she gestures around the large, bright common room we are sitting
in, and shrugs - "well, it's much better than sleeping on a park bench,
Leila is staying at the Open Door Youth Shelter, a
16-bed emergency refuge for 14- to 21-year-olds in Chicago's Lakeview
neighbourhood. Run by a charity called the Night Ministry, it offers
refuge day and night (unlike adult shelters, which tend to open only
from 9pm to 7am). It is one of 345 basic centres across the United
States which draw their core funding from the federal government and
form part of a huge national network of resources to which runaway
children can be referred.
I'm in Chicago on a fact-finding visit organised by a
British charity, the Children's Society. With me are the Liberal
Democrat MP Paul Burstow and members of the Metropolitan Police. The
Night Ministry is about to open another, 24-bed, shelter in Chicago,
which will offer much-needed additional refuge to the estimated 25,000
of the city's children who run away from home overnight each year. The
number of beds it provides - a total of 40 in the two shelters - might
not sound a lot, but it is generous compared to British provision.
Indeed, the number of beds at either one of the
Chicago hostels is more than for all of Britain's youth refuges put
together. A six-bed refuge in London, a three-bed refuge in Scotland and
a one-bed refuge in Devon together provide just ten emergency beds for
Britain's entire young runaway population. This is shocking, given that
each year in the UK 100,000 children under the age of 16 flee their
homes. A quarter of these are under 11; some are as young as six.
The most common reason for running away is family
conflict or physical abuse. One in six runaway children sleeps rough or
in the homes of strangers, significantly increasing the potential for
harm. "When people think of street children," says Emilie Smeaton, a
senior researcher at the Children's Society, "they tend to think of
Africa or Brazil. Since I started doing research into this area in the
late 1990s, though, conditions have become much worse for our own street
children, with gang culture in-creasing rapidly and drug use changing,
too - the prices have gone right down. We're seeing runaway children
getting involved with dangerous behaviours much earlier: having sex and
taking drugs at age ten or 11, for instance."
In response, the Children's Society is running a Safe
and Sound campaign, calling on the government to fund an integrated
national network of resources for runaways, including independently run
children's refuges. It has been mooted that there should be one for each
of Britain's ten regions.
Burstow's early-day motion on the matter, tabled last
year, has been backed by 340 MPs. "I think the most striking thing for
me has been that this one youth shelter here in Chicago has more beds
than we have in the whole of the UK," he says. "The runaway issue is out
of sight, out of mind for us right now, the problem being that there's
no part of the country where there's a critical mass of runaway
children. Without that, it's possible to ignore the issue. The closest
we have to a critical mass is in London, and there the shelter exists
hand to mouth. That's why, in this case, some kind of national statutory
framework is necessary."
Some would argue that existing social services and
local council provision should be adequate to deal with the problem.
With limited finances, however, social services are frequently forced to
prioritise cases, and teenage runaways understandably rank lower than,
say, a five-year-old being removed from abusive parents.
A case in point is 18-year-old Carl Hillier, a former
runaway from Weymouth, who has joined us on the trip to Chicago. In
January last year a long-standing series of arguments between Carl and
his mother escalated into a crisis. "It was a Sunday night and the
arguments had been going on for about five hours," he recalls, "until
she just said, 'I think the best thing is that you leave.' In that
moment I thought, 'Yeah, I actually have to go,' so I grabbed my jumper
"For the first few minutes I thought, 'Thank God,' but
the next feeling was, 'Oh shit, it's 12.30am and I've got nowhere to
go.' I'd been a peer mediator at school, so I had a number for the
Runaway Helpline [part of the National Missing Persons Helpline] and I
rang that. They put me through to social services in Poole, 50 miles
away, who said that because it was the middle of the night, there was
nothing they could do. They had absolutely nowhere for me to go."
In the US, the federal government provides core
funding for the National Runaway Switchboard, a well-publicised and
centralised toll-free service that offers help to runaways or parents
and friends of runaways, and which can refer them to the most local and
appropriate of the country's 17,000 resources. The Runaway Helpline is
the British equivalent. It does a great job, fielding 8,000 calls a
month on average, but it is hampered by a lack of on-the-ground
provision. Vanessa Gray, who heads the service, has said that the
facilities for vulnerable children are often "patchy, inaccessible, and
in some instances non-existent".
Even if social services had the money to provide
adequate resources, it is doubtful that a lot of young runaways would
approach them. "We know that many children are afraid to run to social
services because of what they've heard about being in the care system,"
says Martin Houghton-Brown, policy adviser at the Children's Society.
"They're frightened of the situation that they're running from, and we
don't want to create a situation where they're afraid of running to a
The proposed refuges, run by independent organisations
but with core funding from the government, would offer a confidential
breathing space for up to ten days. In this setting, runaway children
could access advice about what to do next. Ideally, a long-term solution
would be found: foster care, for instance, or returning home with the
help of family mediation. It is estimated that these refuges would cost
about £1m a year each, but they would seem to make good financial sense.
Lancashire Police has estimated that it costs roughly £1,200 to
investigate one runaway incident, and in most cases the child is
returned home without a resolution. Unsurprisingly, this often leads to
children bolting again - 57 per cent of runaways leave home more than
once, and some leave up to a hundred times in a year.
There is also evidence that such breathing space might
cut other housing costs. For instance, Carl ended up living in a local
youth project for nine months before returning home. "Me and my mum are
actually closer than ever now," he says, "but it took all that time for
the situation to improve. I think that if a refuge had been available
for a couple of weeks, combined with some family mediation, it's more
than likely I would have gone straight home when it was time to leave
In Chicago, the future for Leila looks more positive
than it has in years. Her son is living with his father and paternal
grandmother in California, and they have made a deal that she can join
them when she's been clean for a year. Just four months to go. There's
also the possibility of a job at the rehab centre she attended, if she
can stay clean for two years.
"I grew up in a large family, so I'm used to this kind
of environment," she says, nodding at her surroundings. "I like it. I'm
safe, I get fed, I get clothed. There's nothing to worry about." Her
smile is wan, but genuine. "I honestly don't think I could feel better
than I do right now."
3 April 2006