“Look at all my piercings. I started doing them all in January and now I’ve got 8. I’m off to get my tongue done after this.”
Gary, 17, sits sprawled on a chair opposite me, proudly showing off the new metallic additions to his ears. To an outsider, an ordinary teenager. Yet his swagger disguises a boy to whom life has not pulled any punches, and since the age of 16 he has been part of the faceless hundreds of homeless teenagers that haunt York’s streets and hostels.
“I first went onto the streets when I was 16 after family breakdown situations. I couldn’t live with my dad, so I ended up on the streets, an alcoholic, sleeping on market stalls” he says, matter of factly. “I spent four months from September last year, on my own, sleeping on the streets before I got into sheltered accommodation.”
“People think I just do it for attention, when actually i don’t want any attention from anyone other than my parents”
His honesty is disarming, talking of his experiences without any sense of self-pity.
“I just dealt with it. I took each and every day as it came and tried my best. Some nights I would get about 2 hours sleep, depending on what I was doing. I was on my own but I was a full time student and I had a job at Budgens, I also had a job at Currybox on Mickelgate and I was saving my money on not paying for a bed at night-time. Sometimes I would work at Budgens till 11 at night and then I would just help out at the Kebab shops round York, help them close up about four o’clock, then get about two hours sleep on market stalls.”
Drugs and alcohol are commonly misconceived as the main causes of teenage homelessness, yet most is in fact precipitated by family breakdown and disintegration; the young people who fall through the cracks of countless divorces every year. In 2007, statistics show that over 75,000 teenagers in the UK experienced homelessness; and it is a problem that lies closer to home than most of us realise.
Whilst the image of homeless youths lining the streets is somewhat incongruous with the postcard image of York, its pictureque streets hide a mounting social problem often invisible to the ignorant eye. Safe and Sound Homes (SASH), a charity who give shelter to homeless teenagers, reported this month an alarming 40 per cent rise in young people cast out on the streets looking for shelter through their services over the past year.
Clare Usher, a coordinator at the organisation, lamented that while they were expanding their services, the number of volunteers to take in the vulnerable teenagers and cope with the rising demand is far from adequate. “We do the best we can” she said “but without more people willing to volunteer their homes to shelter these teenagers, we have to turn young people away.”
I meet Hannah, 17, on the same day. Quiet and downcast, she looks more world-weary; she too has been on and off the streets for the past year, finding herself outcast from a fragmented family life.
“I was 17 when I was first chucked out” she says. “I had problems before because I tried to kill myself, and my parents didn’t understand so we would just argue. My brothers and sisters are older, so they have moved out and they have kids. I thought my parents liked my sister Cassie more than they liked me, because they always wanted to go out with Cassie but they would never go out with me. I’d always felt like Cassie was the favourite.”
She laughs grimly “My parents were more interested in Ebay than me.”
Rather than permanently leaving home, Hannah has been disjointedly drifted on and off the streets, depriving her of any sense of stability. Whilst she still sees and talks to her parents, she describes her own vulnerability in the face of her family.
“When I left home the first time, and moved into sheltered housing, my parents were a bit shocked, they didn’t think I would actually do it. My mum was crying, which made me cry because my Dad wouldn’t look at me. Since then sometimes I decide to leave, and sometimes my Dad gets angry with me and tells me to pack up my stuff as they don’t want me in the house. I’ve been in and out for the last few months. Especially when my brother and sister are home I don’t feel like I am part of my home, I’m never included, they all just ignore me.”
Like Gary, she rationalises her situation almost to the point of cold fact, yet pervades more of a sadness, sitting hunched over her chair as we talk. Despite never having slept rough, she has spent many nights wondering the streets of York without anywhere to go, waiting for a friend or boyfriend who can take her in for the night.
“It can be really hard” she concedes. “I’ve got depression at the same time and it gets on top of all me all the time. I broke down in front of my boyfriend yesterday when we were at the doctors. It’s very hard. It’s overwhelming, so I just don’t deal with it.”
As well as facing the daily difficulties of life without a stable home, the stigma of being homeless is one that both encounter on a daily basis. Hannah tells me, having always shied away from the spotlight, how difficult she finds being branded as ‘homeless’ by those around her.
“Most of my old friends don’t even bother with me. People think I just do it for attention, when actually I don’t want any attention” she says. “I’d like attention from my parents obviously but I don’t care what people think. I don’t do it on purpose.”
For Gary, the reaction has been even more pronounced. “When I was on the streets I did get my head kicked in by 16 lads, and that was my ex-girlfriend who set me up. I realised from then on you know who your friends are, because you know they aren’t your friends if they are going to get you put into hospital and things like that.”
“I do see some of my old friends now and again, but some of them won’t talk to me due to my circumstances and what I’ve been through, just judging me basically. But I live with it,” he added.
Gary describes how keeping yourself to yourself is the only way to cope on the streets, “helping myself as best as I could and try and get through it as best I could.”
He gives away little of the danger he put himself in as a 16 year old exposed and unprotected on the streets. As a relatively quiet town, a sense of safety on the streets is clearly much more pronounced in York compared to other cities where the demographic is very different. Whilst it is crude to describe Gary’s situation as lucky, homeless teenagers are some of the most vulnerable to social problems in these bigger cities, where the streets aren’t as safe after dark and more often than not a dangerous gang culture dominates.
Indeed, it is easy to forget I am talking to a 17 year old. Brash and loud he may be, but he has a distinct astuteness that goes beyond his years, no doubt picked up from months spent sleeping on the cold York pavements. It is hard not to like this tough, piercing-clad boy, as he proudly describes his life’s ambitions.
“When I was first on the streets I did get kicked out of college because obviously I wasn’t settled,” he tells me. “I’m back in College now doing a different college completely which is Painting and Decorating so fingers crossed I will one day own a big business of my own, help out, get around, and get well known for my work. That’s what I want.”
Hannah is less forthcoming. Asked about what she want for her future she initially looks a little bemused, just shaking her head. “Don’t know really, just see what happens I guess.” It is the answer of someone who isn’t used to being asked about their future, or even thinking that far ahead. It is only later she tentatively tells me that she is saving up for “a camera, a really good one. When I’m older I would actually like to be a photographer.”
To be without a home at 16 is undoubtedly a harrowing existence, yet neither seems willing to acknowledge their vulnerability, defiant in the fact they can look after themselves.
“The whole experience of losing my home has made me so much more grown up. I learnt I couldn’t always rely on people, that I couldn’t rely on my parents,” says Hannah frankly. It is a sentiment echoed closely by Gary, who mulls over the impact his experience living on the streets has had on the way he views his life.
“I don’t think living on the streets has held me back, it has just made me more determined and prove people wrong who say to me, oh yeah you’re not going to get out of this” he says. “My dad knew I was sleeping on the streets and he did nothing to help me. You just learn to rely on yourself.”
He continues, bleakly “From being on the streets you just see most people keep themselves to themselves without keeping an eye on what is happening around them. They are all busy, getting to work, and they don’t stop to take notice of us on the streets, just carry on with what they have to do.”
They are indeed almost an invisible stratum of society, shunted to the unseen margins. For some it is a temporary situation, drifiting in and out of a fraught and broken home, and for others the street is forced to become a permanant way of life.
It is a vicious circle for many, switching between the streets and temporary shelters, yet both Gary and Hannah are adamant to assure me it will not define them.
“I see things more clearly now, I know what people are like and how they are going to treat you” says Gary just as we part ways. “You really just need to get on with your own life and if someone wants to be there for you, then fine, prove it. With me I take seven steps forwards and then fall 10 steps back but I keep pushing myself forward to try and come back to the best I can be.”
Homeless they may be, but neither justifies the close minded stigma cast upon a street tramp. Simply they are fighting against a world that insistently shuts them out, and be it in a hostel or on the streets, they are ultimately just looking for a place of their own. M