Rough Sleeping Children

10/10/2013  -  12.32

Professor Kate Moss, Professor of Criminal Justice

Rough Sleeping Children

The number of rough sleeping children across Europe is on the rise. These are young people who have mostly run away either from home or from sheltered accommodation. They may also include minors who have made border crossings in search of a better life and improved opportunities or for any number of other reasons.

Jess is just 14. Since running away from the children's home at which she was staying, she has been sleeping rough. It is two years now since she was in foster care and already she has had a number of brushes with the police, on one occasion for dealing in drugs. Over the months Jess has twice been attacked, with the result she has been forced to adopt various drastic strategies for survival, including that of procuring places to sleep where she could feel less vulnerable to any risk of further violence. This has also meant offering sexual favours to one of two men who sometimes offer her a bed for the night, having observed her in the park now and then.

She sleeps there not infrequently and usually on the same bench, which, though uncomfortable, at least provides her some semblance of safety, especially during the day when there are students and young couples about. Jess feels constantly lonely, crushingly so, but she has long forgotten how to cry. Neither does she know with whom she can talk about her often nagging sense of emptiness. Already she has problems with alcohol and more than once she has seriously considered committing suicide.

While not a person from real life, Jess and her world nonetheless illustrate the circumstances of many nameless young faces who share her predicament. Her story, much like that of the invisible experience of so many other children rough sleepers, is one which is seldom (if ever) narrated. The alarming rise in children rough sleepers in recent years signals a pressing need for a reliable overview both of their scope Europe wide in numeric terms and of the existing services, policies and prevention strategies which treat these youths directly, many of whom become victims and perpetrators of violence whilst living on the streets as well as targets of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Financed by the EU Daphne program, the pioneering two-year children rough sleepers research project which we at the University of Wolverhampton are currently leading has been tasked with conducting precisely this study, for which ongoing collaboration is currently underway among a team comprising ten partner countries from around Europe.

There is very little information about children who sleep rough. Figures show that 100,000 children go missing every year in the UK. These can come from very different circumstances, from running away from a family situation or abuse to having been deserted by their parents. They may subsequently become victims of sexual exploitation or abuse, be involved in crime or else picked up by a gang.

Many of the children who find themselves in difficulties are not identified by social services as they are picked up by charitable organisations. The research thus represents an important means for identifying the needs of children who sleep rough and of finding concrete ways to assist them, also via the development of stakeholder networks across Europe which can share knowledge in the field and exchange best practices.

Over the last 20 years, the numbers of children sleeping rough has indeed risen and we know for sure that preventative protection measures are not benefiting them. The researchers will directly interview children from the streets in order to find out about their experiences and needs, as well as work with various related organisations and professionals, such as social workers, health and education staff, police and victim support services, all with a view to documenting their findings.

Also, our team at Wolverhampton is hard at work with partners in the UK, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain in assessing similarities and differences among the children in the different countries. By so doing we are working jointly to identify current EU best practices, children rough sleeper needs, services and any guidance which has hitherto been developed in order to meet the needs of this vulnerable group and so achieve its empowerment through knowledge, education, training, network development and awareness-raising.