Nigel Green, unemployed and homeless, had never broken the law until hunger drove him to steal. Suzanne Glass reports
"D'YER KNOW what it's like to be hungry? Do yer? Do yer know what it's like to fast for 24 hours, for 48 hours, for double that? Well, I do."

Nigel Green, aged 18, is sitting in the Fitzwilliam pub, Barnsley, just round the corner from the bakery he and his friends burgled earlier this year. Barnsley is grey and depressing, even in July. The town has been cited as having the poorest quality of life in Britain. Unemployment figures are frighteningly high. Throngs of teenagers with holes in their trainers hover around the Job Centre, waiting for nothing. The lucky ones have families to go home to. Nigel Green doesn't.

"My Mum and Dad got divorced when I was five. I didn't see my Mum for 11 years. When I contacted her, me Dad threw me out. I went to live with her, but she threw me out, cos she said I reminded her too much of me Dad."

Nigel Green's pre-sentence report, compiled by a probation service officer, is euphemistic. It reads, "Mr Green appears to have had a fairly unsettling time over the last few years."

When both his parents had banned him from returning home, the local authorities gave Nigel a bed in a hostel. He had a friend to stay the night, was turfed out of the hostel and found himself on the streets.

Nigel started at an art college. "He paints people with sad, gaunt expressions on their faces," says his friend, unaware of the irony of his words. Unsurprisingly he couldn't concentrate, and he dropped out.

"I had nowhere to stop over. I was dossing on one friend's floor one night and one another night. Then I met up with these two guys. They were walking the streets like. We had stuff in common, cos their parents had thrown them out too. But they were only 16."

Nigel expressly forbade me to contact his parents, but the father of one of the other boys said, "I thought my son was staying with his Granny. I didn't realise he was living rough."

Nigel approached the DSS. He needed a pounds 100 deposit to rent a bedsit. He was turned away. "There was this chap on Sackville Street. He let the three of us kip on his cellar floor. It was pretty cold, like, and damp, cos it was winter and the floorboards were bare. Sometimes I managed to sneak into the pantry, cos it was warmer in there. The problem was food. There was nowhere to cook, so we had to go out and buy crisps and chips and stuff, and that got expensive."

Nigel looks as if he spent a long time on nothing but crisps and chips. His complexion is grey and lifeless.

As he is 18, Nigel is eligible for a pounds 72 income support payment every fortnight, but his cellarmates were too young to receive money from the social services.

"I couldn't sit there and stuff me face, when they had nothing," says Nigel. "But pounds 36 a week weren't much for the three of us. I went back to the DSS and asked again for a bond, you know, a deposit for a bedsit. They gave me pounds 30, but I used it on food for us. We was careful like, but all of a sudden all we had left were two cans of beans and a bag of sugar. That lasted us for four days. We used someone's gas ring to heat up the sugar and brown it like toffee. It made us feel like it was a real meal."

When the beans and the sugar were finished, the boys went to the DSS to ask for a discretionary crisis loan. The DSS used its discretion. It refused the loan and allegedly told the boys to go out and scrounge. A spokesman for Barnsley DSS refused to comment on any individual case, but said: "Crisis loans are intended to meet the short-term needs of a customer in an emergency, such as fire, a flood, a loss or theft. Where was the emergency here?"

"Scrounging" is not easy. "I asked everyone: 'Spare us a bit of grub? Go on, please spare us a bit of grub'," recalls Nigel. "But it gets embarrassing after a while. So we went molching round the streets. Molching, you know, it's just like prowling in search of food. I was so hungry, I had cramps."

Remembering, he holds his stomach. Eventually it all became too much. "We was walking past Hall's bakery on the corner. One of us said: 'Look, there's the bakery', and we stared in the window at the buns and the cakes. We didn't even discuss it with each other. We just went downstairs and pushed in the door and there was all this food there. We stuffed as much as we could into our mouths and then we carried out trays of buns, doughnuts with strawberry jam in them and a huge box of them cherries for cakes and tins of custard. We ran back to our cellar and we ate the lot. All of it, except the cherries. We hid those."

The buns lasted Nigel and his friends till the next Giro cheque. "When that ran out I offered me watch on the tick, you know, I pawned it at the local pub in exchange for food."

The threesome broke into the bakery twice more. By the third occasion, when the money from Nigel's pawned watch had been spent, Caroline Parkinson, the manager, was sick of being called out at night to be told her bakery had been burgled; the police had agreed to keep a vigil in the bakery every night for two weeks.

"If the boys had told me they had nowt to eat, I might have given them something," she said. "I often leave the left-over sandwiches out on the ledge for the animals and the hungry kids. But as it was I had one policeman hiding upstairs and one hiding downstairs in my shop."

They didn't have to wait long. The boys broke into the bakery on the first night of the vigil. They were surprised and fled. "I was legging it, I was out of there, and then these coppers on bikes come roaring past me and that was that. I just thought, oh my God, I've never done a thing wrong before. What's going to happen to me?''

Nigel Green had never broken the law before. The South Yorkshire Police computer printout on him shows no convictions. After their arrest, he and his friends pleaded guilty to burglary and attempted burglary.

The police were not obliged to charge the boys. In such cases they have the option of listening to the details of their plight and issuing a caution. Nor is the Crown Prosecution Service bound to prosecute. It had the option of dropping the case and issuing the boys with a warning. This would have avoided saddling Nigel and his friends with criminal records and jeopardising their employment chances still further.

As it was, the case was brought to court on 14 June. Gerard Hale, the Legal Aid solicitor defending all three boys, says: "I wanted to plead necessity as a defence, but you can't if the defendants have offended more than once."

Evidently the situation is considered less desperate if teenagers are starving on more than one occasion. The magistrate hearing the case accepted that the defendants' circumstances were desperate, and substituted a three- year conditional discharge for a community work sentence. But he also ordered the boys to pay pounds 100 compensation each, for the damage done to Hall's. It is money that they don't have.

"What happens in these cases," says Mr Hale, "is that the offenders can't afford to pay their fines. They don't pay. They get called back to court, have their fines increased, don't pay those either and end up behind bars or doing community service."

Before 1988, when teenagers of 16 and 17 who had been thrown out by their parents were automatically eligible for financial assistance from the DSS, this situation may not have arisen. Nigel would not have had to share his pounds 36 a week with his two homeless 16-year-old friends and might have had enough money to feed himself. Today, the assumption is that teenagers between 16 and 18 have parents to go home to. It is a dangerous assumption.

Shortly after the court case Nigel Green was knifed in a random attack on the streets of Barnsley. He had five hours of surgery and was released from hospital the next day. He would have gone straight back to sleep on the floor of the cellar, but medical staff told him he ran a serious risk of infection if he didn't convalesce in hygienic conditions. "A social worker slipped me a tenner. It was enough to get me in for a shared bedsit two doors up the road from our cellar."

The warden up the road at 62 Sackville Street refused to let me see the premises. But through the front windows, I saw a dark, dingy and depressing room with yellowing mouldy walls. One of the boys from the hostel said: "We keep getting food poisoning. I've spent a lot of time with me head down the toilet. We found mouse shit in the kitchens and the health authorities have been in now. The sofa's that filthy, you stick to it."

These are the conditions in which Nigel Green was living until very recently, when someone lent him pounds 100 as a deposit for a private bedsit. He is determined to sort out his life, to find a job. "I do feel real guilty about what I did. I wonder, would I do it again ? I suppose I would if I had to. Stealing buns is better than starving to death."