Not home, but alone

“When I was 14, it seemed like a really glamorous thing to do. I
just wanted to leave home and get a place of my own.”

Susan is now 16 and lives in a hostel for young people in
Oxfordshire, receiving help and support from the Banbury Youth
Homeless Project.

“At last, it feels like I’ve got a place of my own, and
people who care about me” says Susan, “but the last two years have
been hell”.

Susan left her mum’s home when she was 14 and spent months
sleeping in parks, trying to keep one step ahead of the police and
social services who were understandably concerned for her safety
and welfare. Although a bright girl, schooling became impossible as
she “hung around” with other homeless people most of whom were
older and more streetwise.

“It was my best mate who kept me going by slipping me food and
clothes, and not letting on where I was.”

Far from being glamorous, the experience of leaving home at 14
turned out to be a tough exercise in survival. “There should be
more places where young people can get advice when they are
thinking about leaving home, and where they can go for confidential
help when they are actually on the streets,” says Susan.

Talking with groups of young people throughout the UK who have
experienced homelessness, this picture of young teenagers who are
just about surviving – or not – in streets, parks, buildings and
hostels was a recurring one, confirming how vulnerable thousands of
young people become when they feel they can no longer stay at

“My advice to anyone thinking of leaving home under 16 is
don’t,” says Sophie from Greenwich, who walked out at 15,
following what seemed like endless rows. “I’ve missed out on
so much – school, my family, my mates. All the hostels have waiting
lists, and there are so many hoops to go through to even be
considered for a place. So much depends on luck. If you get in with
the right crowd, you help each other out; if you get in with the
wrong people – they’ll take you for everything you’ve
got. Looking back, I wish I’d stuck it out longer at home.
Putting up with a few arguments has to be better than some of the
nightmares I’ve been through.”

The “nightmares” of young homeless teenagers in Britain today
are often painful to recall, and were still very real to the young
people we spoke to.

“I saw things going on in hostels that I never should have seen
when I was so young!” says 16-year-old Anne from Preston. “I was
petrified all the time. Strange people would knock on my door in
the middle of the night. It was the first time I’d been in
contact with smack-heads, and it was very scary. In the end, I left
and went back to the streets – it felt safer there.”

Having left home early, many young people then find it difficult
to go back. It may be bloody mindedness on the part of the young
person – “no way am I going back after all that has happened”, says
Tom in the Midlands; or it may be the family that makes the
decision – “they’ve made it clear that there isn’t room
for me anymore,” says Iris from London.

Although many young people who have been early leavers from home
would retrospectively share Sophie’s advice to hang on for as
long as possible, they were very clear that abuse should not be
tolerated – whether physical, sexual or emotional. Unfortunately,
in the groups of younger teenagers we spoke to, there was a real
distrust of agencies such as social services who have a statutory
duty to protect them.

“You can tell the people who really care, and people like social
services who just see it as a job,” agree one group of young people
in south London. Cathy in the North West says that social services
offered her help when she first became homeless, but it just
wasn’t in a form that she could accept. Social workers were
often seen as controlling and wanting to know information that
young people were not ready to share.

Homeless young people are getting younger and, in consequence,
even more vulnerable. Many of these early leavers from home are
identified and helped by statutory and voluntary agencies. A
sizeable minority, however, manage to disappear or evade the
authorities they perceive to be unhelpful. These younger teenagers
can face risks and dangers that would overwhelm many of us who are
much older.

Rather than wait until people such as Sophie look back and warn
of the dangers of homelessness with regret, we need to become much
better at giving young teenagers good information and support to
help them stay at home where it is appropriate; and to help them
get out with dignity when home is no longer the right place to

David Harris and Maren Flohren work for Nightstop UK, a
charity that supports volunteers who offer temporary accommodation
to homeless young people in their own homes.

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