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Categorized | Insurance

Charity steps up for vulnerable runaways

Posted on August 31, 2012

The girl outside the train station hunches her shoulders as commuters ebb and flow around her. She fiddles with her phone. She does not see Peter Middleton watching her from a distance.

“It takes a while, but once you get in tune with it, you can just see the person in the crowd,” he says. “People hide in crowds – they will find a way of standing there so they don’t feel vulnerable.”

    Mr Middleton, an Irishman who used to drive trains on the London Underground, is searching the city’s King’s Cross station for children who might have run away from home. He makes a mental note to check in 20 minutes if the girl is still there.

    Viviane DaSilva, his fellow outreach worker, says the two of them are not the only ones on the look out. “Young people, whatever you want to do with them, whatever abuse you want to carry out, stations are a brilliant place [to find them]. Exploiters know there’s something not quite right if you’re hanging around a station.”

    Mr Middleton and Ms DaSilva are working on a new project funded by Railway Children, the charity that helps runaways in India, East Africa and the UK, whose work the Financial Times is highlighting as part of its Summer Spotlight series.

    Railway Children encountered bemusement when it started to work in the UK. “Quite often when I spoke to people they said, ‘Well, we don’t have a problem in this country of children on the streets, keep doing what you’re doing overseas [but] it doesn’t apply here’,” says Terina Keene, Railway Children’s chief executive.

    It does apply here, she says, but it is much harder to see, let alone try to fix. The Children’s Society, a charity that does extensive surveys of school children, estimates conservatively that 84,000 children under 16 ran away from home last year for a night or more. About one in six slept rough or stayed with someone they had just met. A similar proportion stayed away for more than four weeks.

    But seven in every 10 runaways in the UK are never reported missing by their families or care homes. “If they’re not reporting themselves to any kind of state department and they’ve not been reported as missing, no one’s looking for them and they don’t want to be found,” Ms Keene says. “That’s why the critical part of [our model] is “detached street work” – we go looking for them.”

    Railway Children’s model also includes preventative education and support for children who return home. But the street work is particularly intensive because runaways can so easily slip into society’s shadows. “The cost per child is perhaps more than the cost per child is in India or East Africa, where you haven’t got to build up street intelligence because you’re just falling over them,” Ms Keene says. Aviva, the insurer, has given the charity £2m over four years to help support its work.

    New Horizon, a youth centre sandwiched between King’s Cross and Euston train stations, has started doing street work for the charity in London. Mr Middleton and Ms DaSilva, who have worked at the centre for more than a decade, spend hours every day walking through the two stations and the surrounding areas, chatting to the young people who hang out on the streets and housing estates.

    They know how easily young runaways’ lives can spin out of control. Louise, for example, started running away from home when she was 14. She would ride around on night buses if she did not have a place to stay. Sometimes she and a friend would go to a derelict building site at night and light a fire to keep warm.

    She started drinking and taking drugs and at some point she stopped eating. “There was bones everywhere, it was like looking at a skeleton with a sheet draped over it,” she says. Some older women from the streets took her under their collective wing. “They was looking after me but they was looking after me the wrong way. They should’ve told me to go home to my mum but they wasn’t.”

    When she was 17 the women brought her to New Horizon. There she could eat, shower, wash her clothes and get help with housing and work experience, though she still struggled with her addictions. At 20, she is trying to get back on track.

    “I’ve thrown six years of my life down the drain already and it’s like, if I ever have kids they’re going to ask me what I was doing when I was younger. I’ve got to tell them what I was doing and it’s not going to be nice to say that,” she says. “That’s why I want to fix myself up.”


    Britain’s local governments have to provide emergency accommodation to children under 16 who cannot go home. But many young runaways, especially those fleeing domestic violence, do not want to contact the police or the social services. Recognising this, the Children Act law of 1989 allowed organisations to set up short-term refuges where children could stay in safety for up to 14 days.

    Yet there are only two refuges left in the UK with five beds between them, the lowest number since the law was passed. Railway Children helps to fund both of them. It would like to reopen the London Refuge, closed for financial reasons two years ago by the charity that ran it, but it does not have the money. “I don’t know anyone who does, really,” says Ms Keene. “We ask most people but it is so cost-intensive.”