A home away from home

They get 200 yards down the road and think, 'Oh my God, what do I do now?'; Running away is often a cry for help.
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The Independent Culture
STATISTICS ON teenage runaways make grim reading, not least because many end up in an underworld, surviving through crime. Yet, contrary to the popular belief that most runaways are either in care or are victims of sexual abuse, many of the 50,000 children who abscond from home every year do so because of a breakdown in communication with their families.

"Most middle-class parents refuse to believe their children could contemplate leaving home," says Barry Lock, of Oasis Trust, which runs hostels for homeless young people. "Yet ask runaway teenagers from the same sort of background why they left home, and they say their parents never listen or simply don't understand what makes them tick."

In many families the problem starts early. "Communication in families doesn't just happen," Barry Lock explains. "If children are not listened to in their early years, there is no basis for them to believe they will be listened to when they hit adolescence. Communication gulfs grow over the years."

Ross is a likeable 16-year-old. He lived in a nice suburban house near Watford with his parents, who love him dearly. He gets on well at school, last year achieving nine GCSEs, and has plenty of friends. Recently, though, he ran away from home because, he says, he was under too much pressure. His parents, both professional people, are at a complete loss as to why he left, but Ross is under no illusions at all:

"My parents never listen to my side of an argument," he says. "They constantly put pressure on me to do this or do that. Clean my room. Smarten myself up. Get my exams. Their expectations are way too high. They never leave me alone - I just couldn't take it any more."

The national helpline Message Home, a free-call service which passes on messages from runaways to relatives or friends, does much to open up lines of communication. Callers do not have to give personal details, and calls are not traced.

"Some children want to carry on with their new life but are desperate to let their families know they are safe and well," says Message Home's manager, Jane, who prefers to remain anonymous. "Others believe they have done something so awful that their parents will never have them back again."

"They are at a very vulnerable age. They may have become involved with drugs, or perhaps they are in a relationship the parents don't approve of. Some have discovered they are gay and can't cope with telling their parents. When you're a teenager, it's very easy for things to get out of proportion. They have a lot to cope with, pressures build up, they're not thinking straight, and running away seems to be the only answer."

Ross was lucky. He found shelter through Crashpad, a scheme run by Hertfordshire County Council. Crashpad links up with families in the south-west Hertfordshire area who are willing to take in young runaways - no questions asked - and give them bed and board for a maximum of three nights. What it provides is a breathing space for teenagers to think through what they want to do next.

Marc Thackham, Crashpad's project leader, explains the problem and how his scheme can help: "There is no same-night emergency accommodation for young people under 18. Without Crashpad they would end up sleeping on the streets, where they are at risk. It's vital to prevent young people ending up on the streets, but at the moment the demand for our services far outweighs what we can do to help. Some of those helped have found accommodation, others are reconciled with their families.

"The sad fact is that often all we can do is recommend the safest place to sleep out," he adds. "It is a national scandal. There is a desperate need for projects like ours all over the country, but the resources are just not there. Luckily for us, the charity Crisis at Christmas gave us pounds l0,000 funding for a worker - without that, and the unending support from volunteers, we would be unable to cope with the level of need."

The Crashpad team talks to teenagers about practicalities, such as what sort of benefits runaways can expect. "That sometimes does it," Mr Thackham says. "Once they know they are going to get as little as pounds 28 a week, or sometimes nothing at all, to live on, they often realise home is not such a bad option after all."

At Paul Hackwood's house, there is nothing unusual about a midnight phone call asking him to open his door to a stranger. "We have been a Crashpad host family for two years," he says. "There is this myth that young homeless people are feckless wastrels, but our experience is completely different. Most of the young people we see are isolated and very frightened."

When a runaway arrives at Mr Hackwood's house, he or she sits down with the family to an evening meal. "If they feel like it, we make time to talk things through. It's usually a case of what to do next, whether to go home or to find somewhere else to live. Generally, teenagers slam out of home without thinking too much about the consequences. They get 200 yards down the road and think, 'Oh my God, what do I do now?' Most haven't a clue where to go for help, and in that situation are extremely vulnerable."

Crashpad's Marc Thackham says: "We try very hard to help young people like Ross to return home, but unfortunately by law they are within their rights to leave home at 16. The host family scheme really does help them to make sensible decisions about their lives. Crashpad gives them a cooling- off period. It's often all they need to work through a problem with their parents which may have seemed totally insurmountable before. Ross was able to do that, and has now been reunited with his Mum and Dad."

! Message Home helpline: 0500 700740; Crashpad project, Hertfordshire: 01923 245977.

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