'I wish to go to school and, hopefully one day, even university. After that, I want to find a job, then get married and have children who will grow up feeling safe and protected.'
Such dreams might as easily have been articulated by my little girl of six, who still stubbornly considers herself a princess and is no less certain she will one day meet her very own knight in shining armour. Yet instead, these words paraphrase the random utterances of a sample group of children rough sleepers, or CRS, from nine different cities across Europe who were recently interviewed by researchers from as many member states, partners of the Children Rough Sleepers project led by Criminal Justice Professor Kate Moss of the University of Wolverhampton and financed by the EU's Daphne Programme. Whether as study team within an NGO, academic institution or organization in some way operative in child protection, each of these national representatives is also actively involved in fields which concern related prevention.
Results of the interviews pointed to various reasons prompting the initial passage of these young people towards sleeping rough. Though opting to abandon a child protection centre or a situation of foster care was numbered among the motivations, some of the children had early memories of family poverty or simply of insufficient finances to support them - even, at times, of having no available food to eat. Others spoke of being evicted by parents or older siblings or of having fled former domestic environments to extricate themselves from continual verbal abuse or from physical violence which had at some point rendered their homes too hostile to be in any way hospitable. Often their remarks revealed family tensions stretched to the limits by alcoholism and substance abuse. Add to this the fact that in 2012 the UK Missing Persons Bureau reported that circa 10,000 minors go missing nationwide each year (Children Missing from Care, NPIA p 2) and one begins to appreciate how, even setting other EU figures aside, just the UK on its own is before a national emergency of startling proportions. Of the 10,000 already cited, it is estimated that 1 in 6 becomes a rough sleeper. Significantly, very few CRS spoke of a reliable older person to whom they could turn for help. In the rare cases where some responsible adult was accessible, it was usually an uncle, grandparent or social worker, or in some cases a school teacher or girlfriend. 100% of the CRS interviewed in the UK had received some form of secondary education, with only 18% having dropped out prior to completing their school careers. Young female rough sleepers showed themselves to suffer a decidedly higher safety risk than their male counterparts, identifying fears of being gang raped among the very real dangers associated with their nomadic urban lifestyles, a condition which had even forced some to offer sexual favours to older males in exchange for protection.
To such vulnerable minors as these, sleeping rough can mean anything from literally staying on the streets to moving between night shelters to 'sofa surfing' or care provided by voluntary sector organisations. The research teams' young interviewees also numbered those who, as victims and perpetrators of crime, were occasionally involved in incidents which included child prostitution and subjection to other harm by predatory adults. The selling of drugs was sometimes mentioned, and drinking or substance abuse as a means of coping with the emotional impact of their circumstances were also shown to be not uncommon. Moreover, different narrations by the children revealed using public toilets to keep clean and survival through pick pocketing as well as the stealing of food or medicine (41% of UK interviewees said they suffered from health problems). A few explained that the solitary nature of their condition was the direct result of an acknowledgement on their part that friendship comes as a difficult accompaniment to a way of life already so compromising to one's capacity to trust.
In the face of this phenomenon, and in view of the steadily rising numbers of these children in our urban centres, the latest research, associated findings and good practices of the CRS consortium will all be presented during the project's key conference at the European Parliament in Brussels on the afternoon of Wednesday, 10 December 2014. Entitled Children Rough Sleepers on International Human Rights Day : Policies and Best Practices, its speakers will include MEPs Cécile Kyenge (Italy) and Tanja Fajon (Slovenia), lead researcher Professor Kate Moss of the University of Wolverhampton, Leiden's International Child Development Initiatives director Mathijs Euwema and Liz Gosme, Senior Policy Officer at FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless. At Brussels' Aloft Hotel the following morning, the consortium will further host its Children Rough Sleepers Round Table : Facing Emerging Challenges Together, which will once more treat of the issue of children who sleep rough throughout Europe and again include the participation of Kate Moss and Liz Gosme, only this time proceedings will focus more upon the development of a winning, multi-agency approach to tackling related problems as well as on workable, effective prevention measures in synergies among experts and policy makers, institutions, NGOs and which include criminal justice and correctional services representatives. Alia Papageorgiou, founding editor of The Brussels Chronicle, will sit as moderator at both events.
For more information on the upcoming Children Rough Sleepers Conference and Round Table in Brussels on 10 and 11 December 2014 respectively, visit : http://agreenment.altervista.org/crs-conferences/