Girls in despair swell rising young homeless

Young driven to drug and alcohol addiction, petty crime and prostitutio n
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The Independent Online
The number of young homeless people in Britain has risen to "a despairing" 250,000, with a marked increase in teenage girls leaving home with nowhere to go, a report revealed yesterday.

The result of the first attempt to quantify how many young people are on the streets, in squats or bed-and-breakfasts or on friends' floors, it said the problem was far greater than charities had feared. The problem affected young people from all backgrounds, even the most privileged.

The independent study, commissioned by 10 charities including Barnardos, Shelter and Char, highlighted the number of homeless young people being driven to drug and alcohol addiction, prostitution and petty crime at the basest level of survival. The inquiry panel included experts in housing and social services and representatives of the police, the church and business.

Andreas Whittam Smith, chairman of the inquiry and founder editor of The Independent, said an estimated 1 in 30 young people aged between 16 and 25 were homeless, a growing number in rural areas, and described it as "a very large and despairing proportion".

"The young homeless are actually getting younger and the proportion of young homeless who are women is also rising," he said. "It's a startlingly large problem and it's certainly one that's getting worse.

"Their backgrounds are very diverse. They are not confined to a particular part of society ... We are especially worried by the long-term implications of homelessness ... it's all too easy once homeless to slide into a life of petty crime, drug or alcohol abuse."

Many homeless young people had faced bullying, neglect, abuse and conflict in their homes or in care, which a disproportionate number came from, according to the report. Research at Birmingham University showed girls were more likely than boys to fall out irreconcilably with their parents.

Among the greatest problems facing young people when they leave home with nowhere to go are changes in the benefits system; the lack of support for teenagers leaving local authority care; and the "Catch-22" situation in which they are unable to find homes without jobs and jobs without homes.

The report, We don't choose to be homeless, which marked the start of youth homelessness week, included young people's accounts of why they had left care or family homes and what happened to them when they became homeless last year, in five locations across Britain.

One said: "I was in care for three years and was put in nine different places - it did my head in." Another, who ended up on the streets in Cornwall, said: "I was moved on by the police several times, but where do you go? They gave me no advice, just said I couldn't stay where I was." A young woman recalled "being asleep and waking up to find someone's hands down your trousers".

The report will be presented to the Government this week. Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat spokesman, yesterday supported its calls for improved benefits and provisions for young homeless people.

He said: "The figures are not only shocking for a country that calls itself civilised like Britain, but a real challenge. You have to put youngsters from the age of 16 back in the welfare state again and they have to have easy access to safe places with no bureaucratic difficulty."

According to the inquiry panel, it would be considerably cheaper for the Government and taxpayers to tackle homelessness with improved benefits payments rather than bear the costs of thousands of young people having nowhere to live.

The report said there would be a saving of pounds 2,400 for every homeless person. While the taxpayer foots a pounds 1,700 bill over two years for a young person on benefit, that rises to pounds 4,100 for provisions for homeless people who cannot get benefits and are dependent on extra back-up, and fall into crime and ill health.