For most young people with a secure family support network, the transition from childhood to adulthood is an amazing time, full of excitement and opportunities to embrace your independence and make your voice heard.
Unfortunately, for children leaving the care system the idea of stepping into the adult world alone does not seem so prosperous. They have already had a difficult childhood that most of us can't imagine. It is then a sad fact that these young people are more likely than their peers to become homeless, be unemployed and spend time in prison.
Over 800 care leavers, some as young as 16, were placed in unsuitable B&B accommodation last year. Last Saturday, I spent the night at one of these B&BS to see for myself the type of accommodation that care leavers are faced with. For those who have visions of a home away from home, think again. While there are many B&Bs out there that seek to deliver a comfortable night's sleep, with fluffy towels and beautifully cooked breakfasts, there are also those that fall far short of this vision. And it is in these B&Bs, the most dilapidated and unsafe, that some of our most vulnerable children can find themselves staying.
In my room there were no towels; the smoke alarm had been covered with a plastic bag; there was a pest control box near my bed; and significant damp and mold on the walls and around the window. It was apparent that the room hadn't been cleaned for quite some time as layer upon layer of dust and dirt was caked onto surfaces.
The care leavers that we work with tell us that decent and stable accommodation is one of the most important things that they need and it is clear that B&Bs can't and don't provide this. Even the Department for Education's guidance recognises that this is not suitable accommodation for care leavers. Yet figures released today by Barnardo's show that use of B&Bs for this group is widespread, with 73% of local authorities in England placing care leavers in B&B accommodation during 2013-14.
While I don't want children as young as 16 years old driven to the streets by arguing we should ban their use, I do think it is appalling and incredibly depressing that 307 care leavers out of the 800 placed in B&Bs last year stayed longer than 28 days. One night was enough for me.
I arrived at my location feeling relatively positive. The B&B was near the high street and there were quite few people about. But as I rang the doorbell I became aware of just how grim this stay was going to be. The paint on the front door was peeling and there were cobwebs everywhere. On entering it was less the dirt and more the smell of stale food that hit me. It seemed to saturate the air and once in my room, I kept the window open in the hope that it would go away - I can't even begin to imagine how oppressive the smell would be in winter.
Damp and mold were taking over my room but the most worrying aspect was the smoke alarm - covered with a plastic bag - as I had no way of knowing if it was working. On the plus side the lock on the door worked well and the sheets looked clean. If this hadn't been the case I probably would have walked out and gone home, something that a care leaver facing homelessness wouldn't be able to do.
It was my visit to the toilet which scared me the most, as the door simply didn't lock properly. I knew the slightest pressure and it would be open. That was the last time I went to the toilet.
For me, the most surprising aspect of the experience was the feeling of loneliness. I had nobody to talk to and nothing to do and as a result found my anxiety levels increasing. The TV in the room didn't work, so there was nothing to drown out the sounds of strangers walking up and down the corridor and past my door. I kept checking the lock to ensure people couldn't walk straight in because they sounded so close. The constant creaking and sound of the toilet flush reverberating around the room made it hard to get any rest and sleep. I was woken up throughout the night with people coming in and the sound of sirens as something must have happened nearby.
To help ensure that going forward, care leavers will have a better experience than I did when they are in need of a roof over their head, Barnardo's is launching new guidance for local authorities, as part of their 'Beyond Care' campaign. This will help offer better alternatives and meet the housing needs of care leavers.
Although some local authorities are already offering better options such as crash-pads, Night Stop and supported lodgings, the charity is calling for them to only resort to offering care leavers B&B accommodation in emergency situations and as a last resort. The fact that many care leavers are kept in these places for over a month shows that this isn't a one-off problem.
As I reflect on my stay I feel enormously privileged. While I felt lonely I knew I was not alone as family and colleagues texted me throughout the stay to check that I was OK. The truth is that I was more than OK, I had a car outside; money in my pocket; and a true 'home' to go back to. The absolute horror is that there are children in these risky and dangerous places and they don't have an army of people checking if their room is OK; if they are safe; or even simply just how they are. Surely we need to do better by them.