Young People's Zone

Who is caring for London's street children?

The term ‘street child’ tends to conjure images of bare-footed children wearing rags (staring down the camera lens with their big eyes) against the backdrop of the dirty dusty streets of some city in a poor and undeveloped country; the state of the children merely a reflection of the dire living conditions of the majority. These children face poverty and destitution. They have no safe home, nowhere to wash, no access to even the most basic healthcare or education, they have no one caring for them and are subject to exploitation – labour, sex, crime. They are unwitting victims of the cruelly unequal society they live in.

Homeless young people in London face the same struggles, though they are invisible. It’s very hard to spot a homeless young person; they look pretty ‘normal’. Their struggles are unseen… and unheeded. 

Where does a homeless child go to sleep at night?
Where can they get food, drink, a shower?
How will they keep their belongings safe?    
Where can they go if they feel unsafe, scared, or lonely?

These are things children should not have to think about. 

Where are their parents? They are unable or unwilling to provide a safe home and care for them. It is our responsibility to care - we all have a moral duty to these children. But Local Authorities have a statutory duty towards them. They must safeguard and promote their welfare, but for too many, this duty goes unfulfilled. 

This time last year Coram Voice published a report, The Door Is Closed, on the experiences of children (from London & the rest of England) who were homeless and approached their Local Authority’s Children’s Services but were turned away with no support, or too little. Too many vulnerable homeless children and young people miss out on the correct level of support which could have prevented them from remaining homeless, including support with their health, education, employment and other welfare needs.

Even now, after having done all the research for the report (looking at case notes, speaking with advocates and young people themselves), I still can’t quite believe the level of poverty and destitution homeless children face. Their situation is the very real and very damaging result of cumulative failings of our child protection system. The Coram Voice Homeless Outreach service works with vulnerable children and young people who have fallen through the gaps in the safety net, helping them to access support and services to which they are entitled. Last year we worked with over 250 homeless children and young people through the project.
 
A series of more recent reports (from The Children’s Society, Centrepoint, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Local Government Association) confirm what we feared about the scope and scale of the issue of youth homelessness and the failures in child protection. This is a large scale issue that has very significant and detrimental implications on the lives of those affected. 

One year after the report’s launch, Andrew Dickie, Service Manager: National Lead for Helpline and Community Advocacy, says;

‘Sadly our experience over the last 12 months tells us that little has changed, with Local Authorities still failing to adhere to their statutory duties to homeless young people. We continue to support many children and young people experiencing or at risk of homelessness through our helpline and outreach project, ensuring their needs are properly assessed and they receive services to which they are entitled. Youth homelessness is often viewed as a housing issue, but in reality it is a safeguarding issue and should be viewed as such.’

There is a disconcerting lack of outrage over the fact that children are ending up on the streets, having been turned away from Children’s Services departments, without support to prevent their homelessness or protect them from harm. Youth homelessness should not exist in our (supposedly fair and equal) society. If our society were to be judged by the way in which we are treating our children, I don’t think we’d be doing very well.

I too would like to see youth homelessness treated as a serious safeguarding issue – as seriously as child sexual exploitation and gang involvement (which are both risks affecting homeless children). The professionals that have a duty to safeguard children must make sure homeless children (and those at risk of homelessness) get all the support they need to be safe. When children are homeless because they have been excluded from the family home or have left the home because they were facing abuse or neglect, this needs to be taken seriously. Approaching their Local Authority should lead to a thorough and holistic assessment that identifies their needs and what support they require to be safe and do well. The views, wishes, feelings and concerns of the child need to be central in this process.

These children and young people are resilient, resourceful and brave. But we all need to do all that we can to keep them safe and help them to achieve their full potential.

Samira Islam
Information Officer & Chief Storyteller, Coram Voice