Youth Homelessness on the Rise in Britain. TEENS SQUEEZED OUT OF SYSTEM
`THERE'S a lot of violence in the streets, but I think it's safer [sleeping there] than being in one of the shelters,'' says Llewellyn, a shy 18-year-old from Wales who is homeless in London. ``In England, this is where all the work is,'' says John, a self-assured teen-ager from Derbyshire explaining why he came to the city without money, friends, or a place to live.
Each week hundreds of young people come to London looking for a job. They typically find themselves unable to apply for work unless they have a fixed address, and unable to afford housing. Swelling the ranks of the homeless, they often end up sleeping on the streets.
There is no official data on the number of homeless youths in Britain. But it is clearly rising, several private charitable agencies say.
One prominent group, Shelter, estimates that more than 150,000 young single people in Britain could be considered homeless under welfare legislation now in effect. In all, the number of homeless households in Britain has doubled between 1979 and 1987, says Shelter, which campaigns on housing issues and offers counseling services to the needy.
The causes of the increase are varied. Some experts trace them to the Conservative government policies such as the squeezing of welfare payments, slashing of financing for low-cost government housing, and the raising of bank interest rates. Others, and the government, point to social causes such as the breakdown in family relationships; the practice of children leaving home at an early age with unrealistic expectations; the increased numbers of illegitimate children; and the decline in the number of inexpensive private rental properties.
Shelter estimates 25,000 to 40,000 young people slept out in the open in Central London during 1987. Other groups say the numbers increased in 1988.
Some of these teen-agers return home after a few weeks or live with friends temporarily. Others manage to find work and a place to live. Yet others spend months drifting in and out of welfare offices, or become involved in petty crime. They are sometimes exploited by drug dealers and sex offenders, and some end up begging on the street.
One strapping 18-year-old from Aldershot, southwest of London, has lived on his own since the age of 14 and claims he can collect up to 100 (US$185) from a full day of panhandling in London's bustling West End. He says he begs only a few hours a day to earn enough to eat and drink. The teen-ager says he feels secure living under a Thames River embankment where some 100 to 150 people, mostly adult men, sleep in what is known as ``Cardboard City.''
``I'd love to have a place of my own and a regular job, but all my friends are now living in the streets,'' he says.
Charitable agencies in Britain's inner cities are badly overstretched by requests to help homeless adults and families, and few cater specially to young people. Shelter estimates from official data that 370,000 people were officially accepted as homeless by government welfare councils in 1987, but the numbers actually housed by local authorities was only half those accepted.
The Department of Health and Social Services offers a weekly subsidy for housing to those in need. But if applicants are between 16 and 18 years old, they are now ineligible for welfare unless they sign up with the government's job-training program, the Youth Training Scheme. In some areas the program's quotas are filled, and many youths find it unattractive.
``The situation has turned very dramatically for the worse,'' says Nick Hardwick, executive director of Centrepoint which provides a night shelter for those under 19 years in London's West End. Known for the safest and cleanest accommodations in London, Centrepoint turns away young people almost every night.
``The problem is not that more people are becoming homeless but that it has become more difficult to be able to afford the rent,'' Mr. Hardwick says.
Hardwick explains that the problem of homeless youth was aggravated in April 1988 when Britain's welfare rules were tightened. Single young people are given a low priority on the assumption that they have the option to remain at home. Their benefits have been reduced and cannot be claimed in advance of incurring their expenses. They generally do not qualify for assistance since - unlike pregnant women and single mothers, for example - they are usually considered ``intentionally homeless.''
One senior government official concerned with housing told the Monitor that the government was reviewing current legislation on homelessness, including the Housing Act of 1985 which includes criteria for government assistance to those in need. The official said that the government wanted to encourage private developers to build low-rent housing under a new law passed last November. But he agreed that the problem of single, homeless youth falls between the cracks.
Critics charge the government has avoided dealing with the immediate issue by talking about the social causes of homelessness.
``There is no acceptance by government authorities at all that they should take responsibility for housing single homeless people,'' says Ian Bolton of the New Horizon Youth Centre for teenagers in central London. ``I think London has the worst homeless problem in Europe,'' he adds.
A Conservative Party policy statement, leaked last year, said the government should chip away at the social causes of the problem rather than return to past policies of providing low-cost housing. But it admitted that the government's ability to affect the causes of homelessness was limited.