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The children gather at nightfall in the square. Jimmy, less than four foot tall in torn, filthy clothes and with a bloody gash on his forehead, has had a rough day. His home is a skip in a tipper's yard: this morning they came and dumped a load of rubbish and he nearly got crushed. "But no worries," he says. "I make out. I've been on the streets on and off two years now." Jimmy is 12.

He can't remember the last time he went to school. As for his family: "They don't care," he says.

Jimmy's life differs little from that of any child surviving on the streets of Calcutta or Rio. Only he lives in Hull. And while reports on the conditions suffered by children in the developing world regularly provoke an outcry, there seems to be markedly less sympathy for the victims on our own doorstep.

The trouble began during the long, hot summer of 1995. About 20 children, some as young as 10, began to sleep rough in Hull's city centre. The first few tended to have run away from care, but as the word spread others followed, often escaping violent and desperately poor families. Two years later, the group, mostly boys, is fluid. They come and go, rarely thinking beyond the next hour. "It's like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, only the piper's left the kids stranded," remarks one woman, as she watches four lads play "chicken" with the traffic.

Of course Hull's urchins are no angels - they rob, burgle, and abuse passers-by in the street. Yet a policeman at the train station who regularly moves the children on says: "When they're not off their heads, they're good lads. I know some of their backgrounds. Christ, no one would want their lives. Locking them up is not the answer; it's bigger than that."

He's right. Hull is one of the places that bore the brunt of economic upheaval in the past 20 years. Always a working-class city, it lacked the bourgeois backbone which helped see Manchester and Leeds through the worst of the bad times. In Hull, those with aspirations usually looked to the sea to provide work. But when the city's docks and fishing industries collapsed in the 1970s, families used to being governed by the discipline and hierarchy of sea life were unable to adapt to the shapeless existence imposed by unemployment and poverty.

Then, two years ago, the heroin dealers moved into Hull big time, earning it the title "smack capital of the North". The city now has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the UK and double the national rate of children on the "at risk" register, while almost a third of its young people live in families that are totally dependent on benefits.

To see the street children hanging around in the shadows of Hull's Victorian buildings seems surreally appropriate - as if they were characters out of Oliver Twist. But this is no Victorian fiction. Look closer and you'll quickly be jolted back to the present by the tell-tale white plastic bags tucked in the boys' T-shirts, and the sickening, chemical stench of glue coming from their bodies.

Here, aerosol cans, known as "tinnies", are the drug of choice for the very young and utterly dis- possessed. "I do about nine tinnies a day," declares Mick, who lives on the roof of a building hidden down a jumble of alleyways in the city centre. "Glue makes you talk daft, but it stops you feeling things. It's not dangerous like falling asleep. Anyone can get you then."

"I wouldn't sleep there," his friend confides, pointing to an alley. "Only the tramps go there. I'm posher me - only a Portaloo will do."

"I want a coffee, a deca-whatsit one," another lad commands a man serving on a drinks stall. "That other stuff keeps you awake all night."

On this occasion he gets served (I'm paying), but usually workers in the city centre shy away from the children in disgust, and they are banned from most shops and fast-food outlets.

"It's a vicious circle: people despise the children, and the children live out their expectations. But the truth is they are just very young and very vulnerable," says Save the Children worker Anna Whalen, who is based at Hull's young people's centre, The Warren.

The Warren is the one adult place the children trust. Ironically, it is also the one place they cannot enter officially. The centre is a sanctuary for hundreds of troubled youngsters - but they have to be over 16 to use it. The law, as so often lagging far behind reality, states that under-16s should be in school. Yet these children have often been excluded: there is an unstated reluctance on the part of schools, themselves under severe pressure to make ends meet, to rein in so-called troublemakers. So the Warren's workers go out to the children, with food, blankets, and a pledge to listen and not judge.

"They don't treat us like shit, we can tell them things and they hear. They're decent with us and were decent with them," says Paul, 12. To show his affection he mounts, doggie-style, the back of a woman youth-worker. She stays friendly, but disengages, and later remarks: "You can imagine what kind of things he must have seen or gone through to do that."

Keith Russell, co-ordinator of The Warren, says: "When they come to us at 16 we can help with drugs rehab, training, advice on rights. But there is nowhere for the very young ones, who have rejected everything else, to go." The system has failed badly, but there is hope. "Everyone recognises there's a big problem, and these children are starting to get the support they need. These are brilliant kids, but the damage is long-term. If we just sit back, we'll all reap the whirlwind. For make no mistake, whatever some people may want, these kids are not just quietly going to disappear."

Out in the square, Paul is about to do another tinnie. He takes a break from the bag and points to a youth worker. "That's my mum," he says seriously. "No it's not," his mate mocks him. "OK, bastard," Paul mutters, irritable now through the glue. "But I wish she was."