It is estimated that 18,000 children will sleep rough or in a stranger’s home after running away this year / Micha Theiner
Supply of safe havens is 'worryingly low' for the thousands who leave their homes

Britain's most vulnerable children are being put in peril following cut-backs to services that help young runaways. An estimated 18,000 children who run away this year will sleep rough or in the home of a stranger. Yet two-thirds of local authorities provided no emergency accommodation to under-16s who ran away in the past year, according to research by the Railway Children charity.

Following the closure of a specialist refuge in Glasgow last year, there is now only one refuge for runaways in the whole country, which is in South Yorkshire and has just two beds. Local-authority emergency accommodation is being used so inconsistently that it is leaving young people without a safe place at the time they need it most, the Railway Children study found.

Of 110 local authorities that responded to a Freedom of Information request 71 had not provided emergency accommodation to child runaways in the last financial year. The remaining 39 authorities supported as few as 157 children.

Jane Thompson, author of the "Reaching Safe Places" report, said it showed that the supply of safe havens for young runaways was "worryingly low".

"Risky situations can happen almost immediately," she said. "When a teenager has 'run out of favours' and sleeping on a friend's sofa is no longer possible, ending up at the home of someone they barely know can happen very quickly. Behind closed doors, invisible to police and social workers, they often don't realise the risks until it's too late. [Their] well-being depends on them having support from adults they can trust. But young people are struggling to find a safe place when they most need one."

Older children often face the toughest time getting help. A third of professionals surveyed in the research said they had struggled to get social care assessments for those aged 16 and 17, leaving the young people stuck in limbo between social care and housing services.

Ann Coffey MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children, said: "Often children who are at the highest risk, and are running from something – or to something – which is likely to cause them harm, end up with nowhere to go. That's very worrying. It's very important that these children feel there's somewhere safe to go to ....

"They don't want to talk to police or social services, which is why they end up going missing again and again and again."

Four of the top five places children and young people run to are behind closed doors, the study's survey of practitioners established. These places are the houses of friends and family, acquaintances, strangers' houses and parties, all of which leave them vulnerable to abuse. Experts believe that reliance on these hidden, unofficial sources of refuge is putting young people in more danger.

A campaign poster from the Railway Children charity

The shadow Education minister, Tristram Hunt, said: "This is really troubling. How can we protect our children if we don't even know where they are? A society should measure its strength by how it looks after its most vulnerable citizens – especially children. But this report shows, yet again, we are failing miserably."

Local authorities are required to identify children in need and to safeguard and promote their welfare under the 1989 Children Act, which includes providing emergency housing. But since "national indicators" which monitored councils' performance were abolished in 2010, researchers say it has been hard to source meaningful data on emergency responses to young runaways. Experts believe this study suggests it could be seriously inadequate.

"The lack of refuge provision means that most young people under 16 will be reliant on the local authority [for] emergency accommodation," says the report. "Based on these responses, we cannot state with any certainty that there is an adequate safety net."

Councils say they are "facing real difficulties" in providing emergency help to child runaways because of a shortage of housing and cuts to budgets. A Local Government Association spokesman said: "This report lays bare the challenges that many are facing in finding emergency accommodation for vulnerable young people... councils are facing real difficulties in finding emergency care for all homeless people due to a shortage of housing, welfare reforms and 40 per cent cuts to council budgets over the lifetime of this Parliament."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "We have provided local authorities with nearly £1bn to ensure that help is available for individuals, including young people, who find themselves at risk of homelessness. Where children go missing from care we've issued tougher guidance placing a duty on councils to interview those who return within 72 hours, and for the first time ever are collecting national data for all children who go missing from care, not just those missing for 24 hours.

"We have also provided a £30m funding pot to councils and others to help them come up with new ways of [supporting] vulnerable young people through the Children's Social Care Innovation Programme."

Case study: 'I'd like to set up my own charity to help... People seriously underestimate the power of a cup of tea'

'Phoebe', 19, from London

"I first got kicked out when I was 14. It started off because my mum got hepatitis C. She'd never told me she'd taken heroin before and I just started to rebel. Now I realise I didn't understand and wasn't coping with it. She was really ill and I was going out taking lots of drugs and coming back at seven in the morning and I'd be really rude to her.

"I went to my friend's house and it was snowing. I stayed for about a week and I went home again.

"Later, when I was 15, my mum said 'you're just like your father' and I was so upset and I told her that he had abused me. I think then she had so much guilt that she was just against me.

"Then when I was 16 she ate my birthday cake. I came downstairs and saw her eating it and said 'what are you doing?' and she just said 'get the fuck out'. I went to live with my boyfriend and she said OK, just come back. I came back and she'd changed the locks. I think she'd done it to spite me... It's only now I look back that I realise the danger I was in. I put myself in so many dangerous situations. One time I was staying in a park and these five ginormous blokes tried to steal my stuff. I screamed at them. I was wearing a dressing gown. I think I freaked them out, and they ran away. I had no idea who to go to for help.

"I've tried to kill myself twice in the last year and I think it's made my mum really think. All these things happened to her when she was young too and no one helped her.

"I'd like to set up my own charity to help people in these situations. People seriously underestimate the power of a cup of tea. If there was someone at school or wherever, where I could talk and tell someone how I felt and get advice without fear of someone telling other people that would have been great."