Research realities: Emergency accommodation for young runaways

A report into the experiences of young runaways and the problems they encounter is examined by Susannah Bowyer


Commissioning, Delivery and Perceptions of Emergency Accommodation for Young Runaways


Gwyther Rees, Myfanwy Franks, Ros Medforth, Jim Wade


The Children’s Society, Social Policy Research Unit, University of York


This project was commissioned jointly by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the administrations in Scotland and Wales to build a framework for the development of effective emergency accommodation for young runaways. The research investigated models for the accommodation, funding and commissioning, identifying need, thresholds for access, referral routes, and effective integrated working with other services for vulnerable young people.

The accepted estimate is that there are about 100,000 runaways under the age of 16 each year in the UK. The study defines runaways as young people “who have run away from home or care; have been forced to leave home; or are otherwise away from home or care without parental permission for at least one night”. As the researchers usefully underline, the term “young runaway” describes “a temporary situation of young people with a potentially much wider range of needs and issues”.

There are only three registered refuges in the UK for young runaways, offering nine places in total (refuges must be registered under Section 51 of the Children Act 1989). Other models include using existing local authority emergency bed spaces in children’s homes or foster placements, but access to this type of provision is limited.

The Stepping Up survey of local authorities (Evans et al 2007) found emergency accommodation was available in only 20 out of 62 local authorities, while none felt that the provision fully met needs in the area. Police forces provided emergency accommodation for runaways in less than half of the 24 areas and 10 areas reported young runaways staying in police cells due to lack of alternatives.

These findings prompted the publication of the Young Runaways Action Plan in England in June 2008, and the project by Rees and colleagues discussed in this article was commissioned to fulfil an action plan commitment to consult on emergency accommodation provision.

The project focused on under-16s, but the researchers acknowledge that 16- and 17-year-olds fall into a grey area. Their status was clarified by the Southwark ruling in 2009 that local authorities have responsibilities to provide accommodation and care services to homeless young people of those ages under section 20 of the Children Act.


There were three main strands of the research within the project – with professionals, with young people who had experience of running away and in the form of a series of consultation events.

Researchers consulted 50 professionals in 12 districts, and spoke to 22 young people who had run away. Nine consultation events were attended by 102 professionals and three focus group discussions were held involving 18 young people – 16 female and two male. The number of participants was relatively small but the findings are given more weight by detailed reference to other recent and more substantial studies.


The experiences of young runaways are diverse. The Still Running 2 questionnaire (2005) found that about 85% of the respondents who had run away had stayed with friends or relatives, while 16-20% said they had slept rough at some point – suggesting that 15-20,000 young runaways sleep rough for at least one night each year.

About 9% of respondents with experience of running away said they had been hurt or harmed while away. The proportion was higher among those who had slept rough (17%) and among the small number who had stayed with a stranger.

Male runaways were more likely to report hurt or harm than females, which appears to relate in part to the higher rates of young men sleeping rough. The analysis also suggested that disabled, gay and lesbian young people and those born outside the UK are all at increased risk of harm as runaways.

The project found a mismatch between the evidence of need and professionals’ perceptions of need in some areas. They also noted “strongly divergent” views among professionals about the number of young people in need of emergency support. This lack of awareness could be linked to the fact that few runaways seek help from professional agencies, and most (68%) are not reported missing to the police. Therefore, there may be a high level of “invisible need”.

Many young runaways are unaware of the services that are available while others may “actively avoid contact with professionals”. Some young people who were running “to someone or something” – to be with a boyfriend/girlfriend or to go out with friends, for instance, or looked after young people running away to be with their parents–  are unlikely to see themselves as being in need of emergency accommodation even if adults might perceive them to be at risk.

Where young people had contact with services, the experience of feeling listened to was “of fundamental importance”. Young people want adults to listen to their reasons for running away and skilled staff in refuges have the chance to build relationships of trust and meet young people’s need through making balanced assessments of needs and solutions.

Susannah Bowyer is a research officer at Research in Practice

Links and resources

Commissioning, Delivery and Perceptions of Emergency Accommodation for Young Runaways .

More information about the report

Evans K, Houghton-Brown M, Rees G (2007) Stepping Up: The Future of Runaways Services, The Children’s Society

DCSF Statistical Release NI 71: Children Missing from Home or Care. Local authority self-evaluation scores of measures to monitor, respond to and address runaway cases. Released September 2009

 NCERCC, Children Missing from Care: Good Practice in Residential Care



Immediate support

Some form of immediate support should be made available to the 20-25% of young runaways at risk of harm while away from home.

Options for provision

The most viable option for provision is a combination of using existing local authority emergency accommodation provision together with the development of fixed or flexible refuge provision. The possibility of shared cluster approaches across local authority areas should be explored.

Crisis response

Most requests for help are received outside office hours, so a crisis response service needs to be available 24 hours a day. This should be contactable by text and e-mail as well as telephone. Night time calls could be diverted to national helplines, which can play a crucial role in services for young runaways.

Raise awareness

The issue of young runaways exists in all parts of the country and awareness needs raising with key local stakeholders and decision-makers.

Network of targeted services

Emergency accommodation provision should be part of a coherent network of universal and targeted services. Crisis-based response services should be delivered alongside early intervention and prevention work, such as addressing a young person’s non-attendance at school or a parent’s involvement with services for substance misuse or domestic violence.

Protocols for assessments

Protocols for conducting assessments of need with young runaways should be developed and shared across all statutory and voluntary service providers involved.

Emergency accommodation models

Commissioning, Delivery and Perceptions of Emergency Accommodation for Young Runaways explores a range of models and practice examples for refuge and emergency accommodation and makes clear that no one model is universally applicable.

The Aberlour Childcare Trust refuge in Glasgow, which has a flexible staffing model with staff “on call” through a 24-hour helpline, is cited as an example of flexible provision. The South Yorkshire refuge run by charity Safe@Last also uses a flexible model, providing emergency accommodation for young people in the four local authorities in the area.

The report includes a discussion of the potential cost savings of effective crisis response services. Effective intervention followed by work with the young person and their family to address the issues leading to their absconding “could lead to substantial benefits for young people, families, services and society”, it says. This project did not assess potential savings but noted the possible benefits of staving off costly negative outcomes involving health care, police and criminal justice, and disengagement from education.

However, these benefits can only be realised through speedy follow-up responses from effectively integrated services. The researchers recommend that all known runaways should receive a follow-up assessment, for which the Common Assessment Framework seems an appropriate format. However, there was variation in understanding and implementation of the CAF among professionals, and many expressed concerns about the commitment involved in taking the lead professional role. For example, police officers said they did not see this as part of their professional remit.

The report recommends that the role of designated lead professionals for young runaways within children’s services and police (recommended in 2002 by the Social Exclusion Unit) should continue to be promoted to facilitate effective responses. The Stepping Up survey found that 53 out of 69 responding local authorities had this role.

Key strengths of refuge provision include:

● The provision of immediate and safe respite.

● The confidential locations of refuges provide safety in high risk situations.

● Young people can refer themselves into refuge accommodation.

● Skilled staff enable young people to disclose and discuss their situation.

Possible weaknesses include:

● Concerns about the negative influence of young people on each other in refuges.

● Demand in rural and low-population areas is unlikely to warrant fixed provision.

● Concerns that the availability of refuge provision may slow down responses from other agencies.

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