Hunger and depression on weekly income of pounds 34: Two young people tell Mary Braid of their daily struggles for survival

JASON'S second-hand clothes look good but swamp his thin body. The 21-year-old, who spent 12 years in care, is 5ft 8in tall but weighs just nine stone.

'I have lost nearly two stone since I left my last foster home and set out on my own,' he said.

'The doctor says I am really underweight, but what can I do? You have to chose between food and clothes sometimes. It is very hard to survive on pounds 34 a week, but I try to get one solid meal a day.'

Jason, recently made redundant, says participation in an NCH scheme has left him better adjusted than many other young people from care. But he still feels unstable at times and gets depressed about his present poverty and his childhood, 'because it is still there'.

He remembers being taken from his mother, 'kicking and screaming', when he was six. His four younger sisters followed him into care. 'They took me away because my stepfather was beating me. He once tried to drown me when I was five, I can still remember it vividly.'

For three years, Jason's living arrangements have been erratic and include three months living rough. He is now living at the local YMCA but does not know how long he will be allowed to stay.

'I don't have any adults in my life except the NCH staff. You get very lonely, you have no one to fall back on. I have lost contact with my sisters. The last time I saw my mother in the street, she told me to 'fuck off'.'

His friend, Rebecca, 18, lived on the streets from the age of 13 except for a few unsuccessful attempts to live with her divorced parents. To survive, she took and dealt drugs and stole. 'I nicked underwear from Dorothy Perkins nearly every day because I did not want to look as if I was homeless, and I had nowhere to wash clothes.'

She also attributes her salvation to the NCH, which provided her with the first caring adults in her life. They helped her find her way through the benefit rules and regulations and deal with emotional problems. She now lives in her own flat.

She gets depressed about her past and her future, while money adds to her worries and is, she says, to blame for her ill health. 'I spent eight hours in casualty at the weekend with pleurisy. They said I wasn't eating properly. How can you eat on pounds 34 a week?'