Children sleeping rough on the streets. Rio? No, Britain tonight

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Street children, once considered a shocking symbol of Third World poverty, are now a reality in Britain, according to the charity Save the Children.

In Hull, less than three miles from the home of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, children agedunder 16 are sleeping in doorways and alleyways, behind the bins of the local hospital and in a disused night-club. They support themselves by begging and stealing, literally living on the streets.

"Some have escaped from care, others are neglected, others find 'home' a place they just don't want to be because of violence or emotional, physical or sexual abuse," says Andrew West, a research officer for Save the Children and formerly a youth worker in Hull. "There are no statistics because the children are not counted. But they are there in Hull, in Manchester, in London, some running from abuse in rural areas to the cities. They are a hidden scandal ... like Cathy Come Home all over again."

For Dr West, just back from a children's project in Bangladesh, a comparison with the Third World is not sensationalism. "These children have many things in common with their counterparts in the developing world," he says. "Low self-esteem, poor nutrition, lack of education ... it is just hard for people to believe that they live in Britain. They become stigmatised because people would rather blame them than accept the serious questions their existence raises."

Jimmy, 12, lives in a tippers' yard in Hull; John, 13, on the roof of a shop. They carry the stench of glue which "takes the edge off things". Homeless hostels cannot take them in by law, because they are under 16. Local charities are unable to work with them in the daytime because they are supposed to be at school. None of the children out after dark in Hull last week had been to school for months.

These children are among 76 11-16-year-olds whom a multi-agency report in Hull has identified as being "at risk".Police patrols look for them, but the children keep on the move. If the pattern observed by local charity workers continues, in two years' time they will have graduated to heroin and remand centres or prison.

Arnold, 18, who lived on the streets from the age of 14, is now housed in the Salvation Army hostel in the city's red-light district. "For four years I lived on and off in a burnt-out night-club, in the station or round the back of the infirmary, " he says. "There's about 30 kids doing the same now. They've run away from care or because their parents are violent. It's quite easy living off the streets. You can rob stuff and girls can get a lot on the game because they're young."

"In Rio," says Dr West, "the plight of these children would be shocking. In Britain it is unforgivable."