Running on empty

Jenny Walters was 14 when she ran away from home. She lived on
the streets for two years until she was 16 when she was referred to
homelessness organisation Centrepoint.

“It gave her the most safety she had had for two years. It’s just a
shame she had to wait that long,” says Rebecca Pritchard,
Centrepoint’s director of services.

Other than family and friends, accommodation options for runaways
younger than 16 are limited to those provided by local authorities,
for example emergency foster care, or those run by voluntary
organisations, such as overnight accommodation with the consent of
parents or carers, or a refuge. At 16 they become eligible for
emergency hostels, shelters and short-term accommodation.

This limits the role organisations such as Centrepoint can play in
offering accommodation and support to under-16s. Last year, one in
five young people who came into contact with Centrepoint had a
history of running away. Some were persistent runaways known to
street outreach teams, social services and the police, yet they
could not use the services offered by Centrepoint until they were

“Services should reflect needs rather than age,” says Pritchard.
Otherwise, the danger is that they will make their own arrangements
which can put them at risk of exploitation or on the streets. With
the British Transport Police at London’s King’s Cross estimating
that it only takes about six hours for newly homeless young people
to be approached by pimps or drug dealers, the dangers are

This is where refuges come into their own. Under the Children Act
1989 designated refuges can provide emergency accommodation for
under-16s without parental consent if they appear to be at risk of
harm. They can stay for up to 14 days continuously, but for no more
than 21 days over three months. There were five refuges in England
but funding problems have left just one – in London. Even this
temporarily shut three years ago because it was losing money, but
reopened after a series of crisis talks between the Greater London
Association of Directors of Social Services (Gladss), Westminster
Council and others. St Christopher’s, a voluntary organisation
which provides care and supported housing for young people, now
runs the refuge with the NSPCC.

The refuge received three years’ secure funding, with Gladss
agreeing to allocate some of its Quality Protects grant towards
running costs. But this year that contribution has been reduced as
social services directors have started to question why they should
pay for children from other parts of the country, says Ron Giddens,
director of children’s services at St Christopher’s. As yet, there
is no funding agreement from next April.

The annual cost of running the refuge is about £660,000 and
Giddens cannot see how it could be run more cheaply.

Refuges should be part of a range of services, he says. “The Social
Exclusion Unit (SEU) report1 emphasises preventive work
and no one would argue against it, but that doesn’t negate the
necessity of a refuge. You are not going to stop all young people
running away. And a lot of them aren’t accessing services and are
in danger.”

The figures speak for themselves. In its first year of running the
refuge St Christopher’s had 122 admissions. Last year that number
rose to 205 and in the first six months of this year there were
134. About one-third have used the refuge before and returned home
but ran away again because the problems there had not been
resolved. Up to 80 per cent come from London, but others come from
as far away as Jersey. The refuge has received funding from the
Children and Young People’s Unit to develop a family mediation and
support service to try to reduce the numbers of repeated

Meanwhile, the Scottish executive is giving £600,000 to
Aberlour Child Care Trust to set up a refuge in Glasgow and build
on its Running-Other Choices project.

The problem is that responsibilities for runaways who are under-16
are not clear. Testament to the issue’s lack of priority is the
fact that Children’s Society research from 1999 remains the most
up-to-date national information.2 It estimated that
77,000 under-16s run away each year. About a quarter of these are
younger than 11. The SEU took up the cause a couple of years later
and its report cited family problems as the most common reason for
a child leaving home. It found that children felt they had no one
to talk to about their problems, they did not know what else they
could do and they had no support. In short, services did not
provide a strong enough safety net.

Nearly half of young people in care have run away at some point in
their lives. Although they make up only a small proportion of
runaways, children in care are more likely to have run away than
those living with families and are more likely to leave

The SEU advocates more preventive work, arguing that problems
encountered by adults may not have developed if they had received
help as a child. For example nearly half of sentenced prisoners
report having run away as children.

Alison Harvey, principal policy and practice manager at the
Children’s Society, says: “It is useful to think of runaways as an
index of the fact that services for children aren’t working.”

And preventive work is the first element. She says: “It wouldn’t
necessarily be about runaways generally, it would be about making
sure that young people and families are properly supported so they
had somewhere to go when they had problems. Work to tackle things
such as bullying and abuse can all be reframed as work to prevent
them running away.

“The ones we fail to reach with preventive work will run off. You
need a network of services so that if they are gone everyone can
share their knowledge so that people know who they should notify
and what is each person’s responsibility.”

Local authorities can be reluctant to accommodate runaways because
they might think their intervention is not necessary, and that it
could involve longer-term responsibility. “Many young people are
often not known to social services at the point they run away, and
in an environment of constrained resources a young person who has
fallen out with their parents may not seem like an immediate
concern,” says Pritchard.

But local authorities have a duty to plan services for children in
need, and government guidance on this refers to runaways. Despite
this, the SEU notes “it is clear that most have not taken measures
to plan services specifically for runaways”. Indeed, only one out
of 23 local authorities considered the needs of runaways as a
specific group within their children’s services plans.

Additionally, they have to report each year on children missing
from their agreed placement for one night or more. But according to
the SEU, many do not have a clear picture of the numbers and
patterns of looked-after children going missing in their area. And
they have no responsibility to follow up children who have run away
from home.

Stemming from the SEU report are government plans to develop
family-based emergency accommodation options, as well as flexible
refuges where trained staff can check into accommodation with a
runaway and turn it into a temporary refuge. But until more is
done, children such as Jenny will continue to put themselves in
dangerous situations rather than go home.

Names of children mentioned in this article have been

1 SEU, Young Runaways, 2002

2 Children’s Society, Still Running,

Plight of the runaways

Runaways are:

  • Five times more likely than their peers to have drug
  • Three times more likely to be in trouble with the police.
  • Three times more likely to play truant.
  • Seven times more likely to have been physically abused.


  • One quarter will sleep in unsafe places.
  • About 5,000 a year survive through stealing, begging, drug
    dealing and prostitution.

‘Safe in the city rescued me’

“I never knew my dad, but my mum always had boyfriends,” says
Sarah Wilson. “They and my mum used to hit me. Sometimes my mum
would threaten to send me to a children’s home because she
thought I was the reason why her boyfriends left her.

“Then she got her boyfriend who she’s still with. He
didn’t hit me but the things he said really hurt and made me
feel worthless. It didn’t help that I was being bullied at
school. I had been self-harming since I was nine. I tried to commit
suicide but didn’t take enough pills.

“I moved to another school when I was 12 but it wasn’t
long before I was being bullied there too. When I was 15 I started
going to a drama class and met a more alternative crowd of people
and for the first time I had friends. But my mum didn’t like
my friends’ pierced noses and gothic clothes and when the
drama teacher rang her to say I’d missed a class to go to a
nightclub she screamed that she would make my life ‘a fucking

“I ran upstairs, packed a few clothes and ran out. I rang a
friend from a telephone box and her mum picked me up. The hostels
wouldn’t take me in because I was under 16 and the police
just said they’d take me home. I went to stay with a
relative, but had to go home. I remember walking out of school in
the middle of the afternoon on to the streets. I knew I
couldn’t go home and I had nowhere to go.

“I wasn’t on the streets long because I was given
information about Safe in the City, a project run in Manchester by
the Children’s Society which helps children who have run away
and tries to find them services and support.

“I arranged to meet one of the project workers in town and he
brought clean clothes, soap, toothpaste and food. I was grateful
for that, but more than that I was so relieved to speak to someone
who believed me. The project workers gave me advice on what
services I could get, came along to these intimidating meetings
with social services and spoke on my behalf.

“I ended up going to a children’s home so I could finish
my GCSEs. After my exams, Safe in the City helped me to find
sheltered accommodation where I would be safe while I looked for
work. I’ve got my own flat now and I’m still struggling
with depression, but I’m going to university. Safe in the
City helped me change my life.”

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