‘THERE’S NO point wishing for anything because I know it’s going to carry on like this forever.’ That voice of despair was Tracey, a 14 year old sleeping rough who was freezing cold and had not eaten or slept for two days. She was one of those interviewed in the Channel 4 documentary series Staying Lost.
It shows 18 months in the lives of young homeless people in Brighton, London and Nottingham under the New Labour government. Around 43,000 young people each year feel desperate enough to run away from their family or a care home in Britain. In 1995 Jack Straw, now home secretary, made clear what he felt about vulnerable people like Tracey. He slated the ‘winos and addicts whose aggressive begging affronts and sometimes threatens decent citizens’.
The Channel 4 series shows the stories behind the homeless people who so affront New Labour. Kelly and Curtis are just two of those poignant stories. Curtis has been homeless in London for five years, since he was 12 years old. This is not a lifestyle that he celebrates. ‘I’m sick of living on the streets,’ he says.
He wants to build a stable life with Kelly, who ran away from home when she was 15 years old. Both are fighting their addiction to drugs. Kelly, now 25, has just managed to get a council flat. The two of them are positive they can turn their lives around. Their determination is one of the inspiring examples in a harrowing series. Yet few young homeless people get such a chance.
There are only a few refuges for runaways under 16 years old in Britain. That means most young homeless people are condemned to a life on the streets. Alistair Darling, New Labour’s social security secretary, makes big claims of the government’s policies to ‘end social exclusion’. Yet its policies increase the hardship of the young homeless. Young adults under 16 years old cannot claim state benefits. This means they are penniless unless they find work. But the government has excluded those in work under 18 from the meagre minimum wage lower rate of £3 an hour.
Housing charity Shelter’s experience shows that poverty is a key factor behind homelessness. Many families become homeless because they cannot afford to pay their rent, get behind in mortgage repayments or have no money to pay fuel bills. In 1998 33,820 families who owned their own homes had them repossessed.
The average weekly rent in the private sector has jumped by nearly 85 percent between 1990 and 1997. For council rents the figure is even higher – some 117 percent in the ten years since 1998. Already a massive 90 percent of people claiming Housing Benefit report that the money does not cover all their rent. Now New Labour is set to make the problem even worse with the welfare reform it is trying to steamroller through parliament.
The government wants to make Housing Benefit even harder to claim and force the poorest to pay even more towards their rent. Such attacks on welfare could see many more families facing homelessness. This isn’t just a matter of not having a roof over your head. The housing charity Crisis reported last month that homeless people are 11 times more likely to suffer from depression than others. The homeless are also 35 times more likely to commit suicide.
Staying Lost, Monday, 9pm, Channel 4.
Every working class person will feel the pressure
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward