Education & Family

Councils 'turning homeless teenagers away'

Teenager on a bench Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Homeless unaccompanied children should be taken into care by law

Children are ending up sleeping on the streets or night buses as local authorities are failing in their duty to protect them, a charity boss says.

Coram Voice director Andrew Radford says councils sometimes fail to assess children at risk of homelessness.

This leaves children returning to abusive homes, sleeping rough or staying with strangers, he says.

The Local Government Association said children's social care was "one of the biggest challenges" facing councils.

Authorities were facing "real difficulties" finding emergency care for vulnerable children because of a "shortage of housing, funding cuts and record numbers entering the care system", an LGA spokesman added.

'Turning them away'

Under the Children's Act, local authority children's services have to assess any child who presents as homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

While an in-depth assessment takes place, the child should be accommodated.

In most cases, they should then be taken into care and treated as a looked-after child.

But Mr Radford says this is not always happening.

He says: "Children are becoming homeless for a variety of reasons. And when that happens, they eventually end up at children's services, who are then supposed to find them somewhere to live and perform an assessment and more than likely take them into care.

"But what's happening is that they are either not doing the assessments at all or sending them back home even when they have left home to escape violence or abuse.

"Or they say, 'Carry on staying with whoever you are staying with,' or in a few cases they are simply turning them away."

Mr Radford adds: "Sometimes they do carry out an assessment, but they are not doing it properly and they end up housing the child in a hostel.

"This means at the age of 16, say, there's no-one there to look out for them, and they are very vulnerable. There are homeless adults there, some of them will have drink or drugs problems."

He also warns: "There's also a lot of gang involvement in hostels - and one of the significant reasons for becoming homeless is that they are trying to get free of gangs.

"So they end up sleeping on the street because the gangs are there."

Hostel hell

When Elizabeth was 16, she had to leave home because of difficulties with her family.

Social services knew of her situation as she had been "bounced" between friends and family since the age of 12. She was never taken into care.

At first she was moved to a high support hostel place which, despite difficult circumstances, she says she enjoyed.

But soon after, she was moved to another hostel, with no support, where she had to share a bathroom with three adult men.

One of these men would have large groups of friends round, who would sit up all night taking drugs.

Elizabeth says: "I don't mind if people take drugs - that's up to them - but when they are so high that they keep falling against my door - or they are making lots of noise until 04:00, that's hard."

The 16-year-old had to share a bathroom with the men and used to get her towel ripped off her as she walked to and from it by the other residents or their guests.

When she complained to her local council, she was told she could find a room to rent privately, in spite of the fact she was not old enough to sign a tenancy agreement.

As a protest, she stopped paying her rent and was soon threatened with eviction as arrears began to build up.

Finally she got some legal advice through a north London youth centre, and after a year at the unsuitable hostel, she was re-housed in temporary accommodation.

Now 18, she has moved into a flat of her own and been classed a "care-leaver", which means she is entitled to on-going support until she is 21.

"This means a lot", she says, "because I don't have parents I can go to for support."

'Hungry and dehydrated'

Mr Radford says he knows of children who have ended up sleeping on night buses or the Tube, or persuading police officers to let them sleep in a cell for the night, or even sleeping in drug dens.

"They are hungry, they are cold. Half of them have got mental health problems. They have trouble concentrating because they are hungry and dehydrated.

"Some of them a very articulate and can express their needs, but some are in a desperate state."

The charity has been helping children challenge decisions by children's services, in London mainly, which they say have led to them becoming homeless.

It has written a report, called the Door is Closed, on the experiences of 40 young people it has been working with in the past year.

It found that many children were told by local authorities to go back to their families or that they were left to "sofa surf".

This can involve not just staying with friends but with people they have just met, it says.

Public law solicitor Dan Rosenberg, who has been working with such youngsters, said: "The general attitude towards these children who are suffering obvious maltreatment is, Go home, and stop bothering us.'

"There are child protection failures on a grand scale, and it's not just limited to sexual abuse.

Some local authorities are challenged over and over again - they know what the law is, and they know what they should be doing but deliberately don't do it.

"They only start to engage when they get a legal challenge."

He added that children had no idea about their rights in this area unless they had been put in contact with a solicitor, by a youth project or through a friend, and that councils could exploit this.

The LGA said using emergency accommodation was just one of "a range of measures" councils use, which also includes "a strong emphasis on preventing homelessness occurring in the first place".

"We must learn from this practice to ensure that all children are given support through accommodation and care that is appropriate, safe, and tailored towards their individual needs," a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the London Councils said any failure to fully support vulnerable children was "unacceptable".

"Local authorities in London have put £160 million in additional resources into children's services despite a 44% cut to their funding over the last five years," the spokesman added.

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