It’s two in the morning. A 15-year-old girl roams the streets of a rough council estate, wondering where to spend the night. She climbs the stairs in one of the blocks of shabby, high-rise flats, and sits near the top. It’s cold and draughty in the stairwell, but better than being outside. She asks herself if going back home would be safer than staying out all night. Maybe it would be. Maybe it wouldn’t.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about homeless young people. That girl on the stairs waiting for morning was me. But this isn’t about me. It’s about young people whose lives make the experiences that I had seem like a picnic. It’s about a social problem that exists today and it needs our urgent attention.
Are you aware that the UK today has a youth homelessness problem? A survey commissioned by the CSC (Consortium for Street Children) showed that while 61% of people thought street children were prevalent in Africa and Asia, only 13% saw it as a serious problem in the UK. An estimated 100,000 children run away in Britain each year, many of whom experience sleeping on the streets. As Sally Shire, Chief executive of the CSC says: ‘Whether they are a runaway from Derby or a street child in Delhi the factors that drive children to the streets are similar.’
The true extent of youth homelessness is masked because only young people in contact with services are counted. The ‘hidden homeless’ include those living in temporary hostels or sofa surfing (staying for a night or two in different people’s houses and constantly moving on). These people often do sleep outside but not every night. Also affecting statistics are the different age limits on how organisations define youth.
Do you remember being a teenager? It’s often a time of trouble and turmoil, isn’t it? It can be difficult enough coping with being a teenager without the severe problems of homelessness added on. What would that do to self-esteem and developing a sense of identity?
There are many reasons why a teenager might become homeless: bullying, dysfunctional family relationships, violence, abuse, poverty and lack of affordable housing. Not all run away, some are ‘kicked out’ by their parents. Also, they might be the offspring of homeless adults, or those leaving care, having come of age and therefore no longer the responsibility of children’s services.
The most common reason why a young person might become homeless is relationship breakdown with parents, and this often involves physical, emotional and sexual abuse. A large number of this group are the adolescent ‘runaways’, so called because they purposely leave family homes, or they run away from child protection services, psychiatric units or foster homes.
Many who run away are ‘situational runaways’ who leave after an argument with a parent or carer and then return a few days or weeks later. In some instances, particularly those where ongoing domestic abuse is intolerable, this pattern repeats itself but with increasingly longer periods of absence until these teenagers eventually become part of the chronic homeless population, sleeping rough or in hostels.
Of course homelessness is a serious matter whatever the age group, but if we can tackle this issue when people are young, we may, hopefully, prevent a future generation of long-term homeless people.
One of the ironies is that those who run away from abusive home environments face as much, if not more, of the same dangers on the streets that caused them to run away. Perhaps, despite this, they believe they have more control over their lives than remaining where they know they will continue to be abused.
Obviously the risks that being homeless brings are tremendous. These include the possibility of becoming physically and mentally ill due to exposure to cold, hunger, fear, sleeplessness, lack of hygiene facilities, constantly facing the danger of being assaulted, raped, and perhaps even murdered. Survival strategies on the streets include begging, stealing, and things that increase risks, such as prostitution and seeking temporary relief in drug or alcohol use.
So how does it feel to be a 13 year old girl sleeping in the rain at the back of Tesco’s? How does it feel to be young and homeless, trailing the streets looking for a place to sleep? Let’s think about it tonight when we’re in bed, safe and warm. And let’s try to imagine it now, how it might feel to sleep in doorways, in abandoned buildings, and on park benches in the dark. Do teenagers actually sleep in these situations? Maybe some of them do through sheer fatigue, but I’m sure others spend their nights too afraid to sleep. That’s why I’ve titled this post ‘Waiting for Morning’.
Why don’t they get a job or go back home or seek help from charitable or statutory services? It’s a myth that most homeless teens could easily improve their situation. In these days of high unemployment, it’s almost impossible for young people to get a job who lack educational qualifications and experience, as well as having no fixed abode. Even if they do find some work or can obtain benefits (and of course that’s only those who are legally old enough), finding rented housing, affordable on a low income, often proves an insurmountable problem. Going home is not a feasible option if it means returning to more abuse.
Some of the homeless teens who approach charities in search of at least a temporary night shelter have to be turned away due to lack of facilities. This is especially likely now with the economic crisis and cuts in funding to charities. A strong fear that seeking help from statutory social services might result in being sent back to an abusive home keeps some teenagers lying low. We have to remember, too, that many of these kids have been badly treated and let down by every adult they’ve met, so their lack of trust is understandable.
Homeless teens on a downward spiral who find their way into the psychiatric services may end up with a stigmatising diagnosis, and the effects of damaging treatment, to add to their problems. Diagnoses such as schizophrenia or personality disorder are often used to describe what are really reactions to ongoing traumatic experiences, such as homelessness, preceded by the trauma of childhood abuse. My work for a mental health charity includes supporting people whose post traumatic stress disorder has been compounded, if not solely caused, by their experiences of the psychiatric services. I think that teenagers who feel it’s safer to trade their bed in a psychiatric unit for a bench in the park may not be entirely wrong.
So what is being done? To answer this question I thought about what is available in my own locality, Leeds. The largest youth homelessness charity in the UK is Depaul UK which, along with Barnardo’s Future Project, runs Leeds Nightstop. This is a scheme providing emergency accommodation to homeless teens within the homes of approved volunteers. It’s an attempt to break the cycle of youth homelessness by giving the young person a safe place to stay for a few nights, whilst trained staff work with them to try to sort out a long-term solution. Family mediation is also offered, which is appropriate for at least some young people.
Nightstop is just one example of the kind of help that might be offered in Leeds and other cities. Charities like this one do enable some young people to get off the streets if a place is available and if a longer term solution can then be found.
You may have found much of this post depressing, and not without a touch of my own cynicism. But I’m passionate about the need to raise awareness of the complicated issues of youth homelessness, without sugaring the pill. It’s not all bad. Many homeless charities can cite success stories from teenagers they’ve helped.
In early spring, a night of frost, rain, wind and hailstones bombarded my garden. What a pathetic sight the morning brought. The recently-opened daffodils that lived in a tub in my garden looked beyond hope, their heads drooping low. But the sun came out and gently warmed them. Gradually, over time, they not only survived but turned into the loveliest daffodils you could see.
Who’d have thought that those wilting plants had the potential to live, grow and bloom, given the right help and circumstances? Do you believe that our homeless youth have such potential, too? YES, they do. I know it.