Children of the state bite back: Anger, rather than need, keeps the young homeless on the streets, argues Esther Oxford

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ONE MARVELS at John Major's understanding of the begging community. Could it be that he spends his early hours stepping over swathed bodies on the Strand? His insights into the begging industry appear spot-on. He says that begging is 'frightening' and 'offensive'. A walk round any railway station would confirm this. He says that begging is 'unnecessary'. This too is true: most beggars could claim pounds 36.15 as well as their entire rent if they were organised enough.

A good number of them have indeed chosen to be there. As Mr Major told Der Spiegel magazine: 'They're not on the streets because they have to be. There are empty places in accommodation units across London.'

In all his utterances, however, Mr Major has overlooked one important fact. Many of London's beggars do not harass passers-by because they are hungry; free food is plentiful. Nor are they short of temporary accommodation: Shelter, a charity for the homeless, turns away just two, maybe three people a night.

The Independent recently spent an evening on the Strand. Within the space of four hours, 13 beggars between the ages 15 and 30 agreed to talk. And it was just as Mr Major has said: most had chosen to sleep rough and beg. They were on the streets, they said, because they were trying to make a point. They are disillusioned and angry. They feel their lives have been messed up. Their begging is a form of protest, it is rarely about meeting needs.

They are the Government's children. According to figures compiled by Centrepoint, a London-based charity for the young homeless, one-third of them have been brought up in council care. Most had been abused, neglected or abandoned. Once in care, they were rotated constantly between foster homes and children's homes. Mr Major can set up initiatives to 'clear the streets' until Kingdom come. But until he tackles the real problem - that up to 10,000 16-year-olds are ejected, uneducated and untrained, into the adult world each year - these disillusioned young will contine to prowl the streets.

'I beg on the Strand because I don't see why I should work. What has the Government ever done for me?' was a common refrain. 'If I got myself a place and a couple of suits I could set myself up tomorrow,' said one 20-year-old male who claimed to earn up to pounds 200 cheating shopkeepers. 'But why should I pay tax? They never did anything for me when I was in care.'

Tory Laughland, director of the Who Cares? trust, a charity for children in care, says it is not surprising that many of the beggars are 'deeply angry': a great many of them have been 'screwed up' by social services. 'They feel they have had their education and job prospects mucked up by a system which moves them from home to home, and school to school. Many feel that when they most needed help, no one was willing to accept responsibility. They come out of care and decide that 'this world owes me a living'. It is an unproductive attitude, but is born of a huge sense of injustice and helplessness,' Ms Laughland said.

She says that it is not enough to give these 'children of the state' money or hostel accommodation or even a flat. 'It would have to be a very mature 16- or 17-year-old who could cope with running their own flat.'

Instead, the Government should amend the 1989 Children Act to make it obligatory for local authorities to provide after-care for 18-year-olds. 'We need to train young people to cope with life after care. They should be sent on compulsory courses where they learn how to cook, how to pay bills, how to make friends - all that any other teenager would pick up at home,' Ms Laughland said. 'This would save the government at least pounds 200m a year. That is what it costs the taxpayer when care-leavers suffer from a mental breakdown or end up in prison.'

Centrepoint says that the social security maze needs to be simplified to cater for the high number of care-leavers who emerge illiterate. To claim social security benefits, London's 16- and 17-year-olds must have the nous to prove they are facing severe hardship. Then they must sign up at a careers office in Paddington, find their way to the unemployment office in Victoria, then turn up at the DSS office in Euston for an interview.

Hostels too need to be adapted. Most are run as huge, anonymous 'gutter-cleaners' as one beggar put it - set up by the Government to 'sweep the streets'. Instead, they should be run as a 'service'.

One place with the right idea is Arlington Housing Association. Since April last year, it has taken over three DSS hostels and refurbished them. Spur House in Lewisham was the first: dormitories catering for up to 20 people are being demolished in favour of single or double rooms. Soon, all 192 residents will be in private rooms.

'The emphasis is on dignity, self-reliance and resettlement into the community,' said Michael Wake, the housing association's director. Residents have 24-hour access and may drink in their rooms. Rent is pounds 98 a week (usually covered by social security), and most people stay between six months and a year.

It is, in essence, a half-way house. Care-leavers and beggars are given a counsellor. Care workers, dependency workers and a medical team have also been brought in to help with their adjustment to the world outside.

Schemes like these are fine, as far as they go. But if Mr Major is genuinely interested in keeping beggars off the streets, a longer-term strategy is needed. And first, the system of council care itself needs to be overhauled, so that the child victims of family breakdown are properly supported into the adult world. As well as condemning the beggars of Bath, Mr Major might start talking to the under-16s in council care and find out how they need to be equipped for a life off the streets.

(Photograph omitted)