A smart shelter is not enough

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Indy Lifestyle Online
For once the sinister phrase much loved by New Labour, "thinking the unthinkable about welfare", has resulted in a positive outcome: the young homeless are to be given one of Britain's best addresses, Admiralty Arch, as a Christmas present from the Government.

This is a bold and imaginative move - and also delightfully anarchic when you imagine Britain's dispossessed sipping soup in their Grade 1 listed Edwardian shelter, mere spitting distance from Buckingham Palace. Anybody who owns empty properties must already be quaking at the idea that some bright spark will suggest they follow suit by opening them up to down-and-outs.

Shadow ministers have already, of course, dismissed the move as cynical gesture-politics aimed at giving the Government a caring glow as the winter nights draw in. The 40 young people who will be housed there may beg to differ. Unlike most other suggestions for solving the problem of youth homelessness, the shelter is to be opened within weeks, ready to make a real and immediate difference to children fleeing abuse and broken homes who may not be alive to see the results of longer-term strategies.

But, brilliant as it is and ungrateful as I may sound, it is patently not enough. Research by the Children's Society shows that 10,000 children run away from home 10 times or more before they reach their 16th birthday. A quarter had first run away before the age of 11.

British law as it stands returns runaway under-16s straight back to the families or care homes they have escaped. State and council-run refuges are obliged to turn them away. These are invisible children who slip every day through an appalling gap in the welfare net. You don't see them in shop doorways or on park benches because they don't want you to. They do not appear in Government statistics because they are not entitled to any benefits.

Their invisibility is compounded by the fact that no one wants to believe they exist. Street children are supposed to be a Third World cliche, not a part of British life. Prostitution, begging, and crime are claiming them every day - no one acts to close the gap.

There are only four homes in Britain where under-16s can go. These are run by charities - three by the Children's Society, one by Centrepoint and the NSPCC - at a cost of pounds 1m each per year. And they are nearly always full. Earlier this year, the only statutory financial support given to any of the refuges - a grant from the Department of Health - was withdrawn from the Centrepoint refuge.

If the Government is serious about tackling youth homelessness it must establish a nationwide network of similar homes for under-16s. For over- 16s, the key issue is the denial of benefits. Without housing benefit or income support, homeless 16- to 18-year-olds are led into risky and damaging lifestyles as the only way to support themselves. Until those benefits are restored they will continue to do so.

In the past few weeks we have shown ourselves to be a nation profoundly concerned about our young people. We want to run paedophiles out of town, we are concerned about leaving our children with inexperienced nannies, we are starting to accept that wild tales of systemic child abuse going on in Britain's children homes are a reality in our society.

We say we want to protect British children from pimps and drugs and the cold weather, but in the end it is only words.

The 40 beds at Admiralty Arch are a good start. Sending some money to the Children's Society or to Centrepoint would help. But dealing with the issue of youth homelessness effectively means more than just a few campbeds for Christmas. It means a complete rethink of Tory welfare policy.

And, that, sadly, in the present political climate may be truly unthinkable.