Our young runaways

Every year, 100,000 British children leave home with absolutely nowhere to go. How can we save them

The girl hunched beside me on the couch is wearing a huge black poncho that covers everything except the nervous tap of her feet. Leila, a pale girl in her late teens, is seventh in a family of 17 kids. She is bipolar, and her mother was a drug addict who committed suicide just before Thanksgiving last year. Her natural father is blind and wants nothing to do with her; her stepfather abused her. "I said to my mum, it's him or me, and she just told me to get out." By the age of 14 Leila was homeless, by 15 she had a son, and by 16 she was regularly taking crystal meth, cocaine, crack and angel dust. "I did drugs even before I was on the streets, though," she notes. "I started doing them with my mum."

Despite all this Leila is feeling pretty good. She recently completed eight months of rehab. "I feel fine today. Being homeless obviously isn't great, but when you have somewhere like this to go" - she gestures around the large, bright common room we are sitting in, and shrugs - "well, it's much better than sleeping on a park bench, isn't it?"

Leila is staying at the Open Door Youth Shelter, a 16-bed emergency refuge for 14- to 21-year-olds in Chicago's Lakeview neighbourhood. Run by a charity called the Night Ministry, it offers refuge day and night (unlike adult shelters, which tend to open only from 9pm to 7am). It is one of 345 basic centres across the United States which draw their core funding from the federal government and form part of a huge national network of resources to which runaway children can be referred.

I'm in Chicago on a fact-finding visit organised by a British charity, the Children's Society. With me are the Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow and members of the Metropolitan Police. The Night Ministry is about to open another, 24-bed, shelter in Chicago, which will offer much-needed additional refuge to the estimated 25,000 of the city's children who run away from home overnight each year. The number of beds it provides - a total of 40 in the two shelters - might not sound a lot, but it is generous compared to British provision.

Indeed, the number of beds at either one of the Chicago hostels is more than for all of Britain's youth refuges put together. A six-bed refuge in London, a three-bed refuge in Scotland and a one-bed refuge in Devon together provide just ten emergency beds for Britain's entire young runaway population. This is shocking, given that each year in the UK 100,000 children under the age of 16 flee their homes. A quarter of these are under 11; some are as young as six.

The most common reason for run- ning away is family conflict or physical abuse. One in six runaway children sleeps rough or in the homes of strangers, significantly increasing the potential for harm. "When people think of street children," says Emilie Smeaton, a senior researcher at the Children's Society, "they tend to think of Africa or Brazil. Since I started doing research into this area in the late 1990s, though, conditions have become much worse for our own street children, with gang culture in-creasing rapidly and drug use changing, too - the prices have gone right down. We're seeing runaway children getting involved with dangerous behaviours much earlier: having sex and taking drugs at age ten or 11, for instance."

In response, the Children's Society is running a Safe and Sound campaign, calling on the government to fund an integrated national network of resources for runaways, including independently run children's refuges. It has been mooted that there should be one for each of Britain's ten regions.

Burstow's early-day motion on the matter, tabled last year, has been backed by 340 MPs. "I think the most striking thing for me has been that this one youth shelter here in Chicago has more beds than we have in the whole of the UK," he says. "The runaway issue is out of sight, out of mind for us right now, the problem being that there's no part of the country where there's a critical mass of runaway children. Without that, it's possible to ignore the issue. The closest we have to a critical mass is in London, and there the shelter exists hand to mouth. That's why, in this case, some kind of national statutory framework is necessary."

Some would argue that existing social services and local council provision should be adequate to deal with the problem. With limited finances, however, social services are frequently forced to prioritise cases, and teenage runaways understandably rank lower than, say, a five-year-old being removed from abusive parents.

A case in point is 18-year-old Carl Hillier, a former runaway from Weymouth, who has joined us on the trip to Chicago. In January last year a long-standing series of arguments between Carl and his mother escalated into a crisis. "It was a Sunday night and the arguments had been going on for about five hours," he recalls, "until she just said, 'I think the best thing is that you leave.' In that moment I thought, 'Yeah, I actually have to go,' so I grabbed my jumper and left.

"For the first few minutes I thought, 'Thank God,' but the next feeling was, 'Oh shit, it's 12.30am and I've got nowhere to go.' I'd been a peer mediator at school, so I had a number for the Runaway Helpline [part of the National Missing Persons Helpline] and I rang that. They put me through to social services in Poole, 50 miles away, who said that because it was the middle of the night, there was nothing they could do. They had absolutely nowhere for me to go."

In the US, the federal government provides core funding for the National Runaway Switchboard, a well-publicised and centralised toll-free service that offers help to runaways or parents and friends of runaways, and which can refer them to the most local and appropriate of the country's 17,000 resources. The Runaway Helpline is the British equivalent. It does a great job, fielding 8,000 calls a month on average, but it is hampered by a lack of on-the-ground provision. Vanessa Gray, who heads the service, has said that the facilities for vulnerable children are often "patchy, inaccessible, and in some instances non-existent".

Even if social services had the money to provide adequate resources, it is doubtful that a lot of young runaways would approach them. "We know that many children are afraid to run to social services because of what they've heard about being in the care system," says Martin Houghton-Brown, policy adviser at the Children's Society. "They're frightened of the situation that they're running from, and we don't want to create a situation where they're afraid of running to a resource."

The proposed refuges, run by independent organisations but with core funding from the government, would offer a confidential breathing space for up to ten days. In this setting, runaway children could access advice about what to do next. Ideally, a long-term solution would be found: foster care, for instance, or returning home with the help of family mediation. It is estimated that these refuges would cost about £1m a year each, but they would seem to make good financial sense. Lancashire Police has estimated that it costs roughly £1,200 to investigate one runaway incident, and in most cases the child is returned home without a resolution. Unsurprisingly, this often leads to children bolting again - 57 per cent of runaways leave home more than once, and some leave up to a hundred times in a year.

There is also evidence that such breathing space might cut other housing costs. For instance, Carl ended up living in a local youth project for nine months before returning home. "Me and my mum are actually closer than ever now," he says, "but it took all that time for the situation to improve. I think that if a refuge had been available for a couple of weeks, combined with some family mediation, it's more than likely I would have gone straight home when it was time to leave the refuge."

In Chicago, the future for Leila looks more positive than it has in years. Her son is living with his father and paternal grandmother in California, and they have made a deal that she can join them when she's been clean for a year. Just four months to go. There's also the possibility of a job at the rehab centre she attended, if she can stay clean for two years.

"I grew up in a large family, so I'm used to this kind of environment," she says, nodding at her surroundings. "I like it. I'm safe, I get fed, I get clothed. There's nothing to worry about." Her smile is wan, but genuine. "I honestly don't think I could feel better than I do right now."