Developed World Forgets Its Young Homeless FWD

Tom Boland (
Thu, 16 Jul 1998 13:44:38 -0700 (PDT)



     By Alex Whiting

LONDON, Jul 8 (IPS) - The impact of homelessness on children is a
stark reality in some of the world's wealthiest countries, according
to a report launched Wednesday by the United Nations Children's Fund
(UNICEF). Despite huge increases in wealth in industrialised countries
over the last 15 years -- in 12 of the wealthiest countries the per
capita gross national product has more than doubled -- the number of
people sleeping on the streets has increased.

And the worst affected are children and young people. UNICEF estimates
that 250,000 young people aged between 16 and 24 lost their homes in
1995. Many found new places to live, but an increasing number have
ended up on the streets or in hostels.

These young people are having to start their adult lives on the edge
of a poverty gap widened by insensitive officialdom and widespread
youth unemployment.

Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF, told IPS: ''We are
highlighting this issue because we want to raise public awareness of
homelessness and remind the world that challenges about children do
not stop at the boundary of the developing world.''

In the United States 5.5 million children were living in poverty in
1996. Many poor families cannot support their young adults, and ''it
is reasonable to surmise that a goodly number of them were relegated
to the streets,'' says UNICEF.

Many women end up on the streets and have to take their children with
them. One of the reasons for the large numbers of homeless children,
according to Shelter, a London-based charity working with the
homeless, is that nearly a quarter of all families in Britain are
headed by single parents, mostly women.

But almost half of working women here do not earn enough on their
salaries alone to afford the current average rent on a one-bedroom
home, and are more likely to end up homeless.

According to the UNICEF report, ''homelessness is the predictable
result of private and public sector policies that exclude the poor
from participating in the economic revolution, while safety nets are
slashed in the name of 'global competitiveness'.''

The situation is perpetuated by a deep reluctance to tackle the roots
of the problem. ''You need to remove all obstacles to accessing
housing,'' it adds. ''One of the overall problems now is the way
social support systems have been dismantled. Safety net s are not
catching people in the same way.''

''The scale of the problem is difficult to assess,'' admits Amanda
Allard, Policy Officer at the British campaign group NCH Action for
Children. Official figures here are based on those who seek help, but
since most 16-24 year olds know they are not a pr iority, few apply.

''Young people are almost entirely excluded from national housing
needs assessments because the government does not recognise their need
for housing,'' she says.

Municipal housing denied them, young people also suffer more from
unemployment and tend to be paid more poorly, rented accommodation can
also be hard to find. Public investment in social housing and
municipal homes have been heavily cut in Australia, Can ada, New
Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, adds Catherine Way,
who edited the UNICEF report.

In most cases the young, without dependents, are expected to make
their own way in life. There is little support for those who cannot
manage on their own.

''Young people are only regarded as a priority if they are considered
'vulnerable','' said Allard. ''Most local authorities do not regard
young people, even those aged only 16 or 17, as vulnerable just
because they are living on the streets. Even proven risk of violence,
abuse or exploitation does not guarantee the granting of priority need

British Prime Minister Tony Blair used the launch to detail his
government's own response to the issue. A new programme announced
Tuesday, aims to reduce the numbers of people sleeping on the streets
by two thirds in three years. According to government

figures 2,000 or more people sleep rough every night.

''There was no clearer evidence that something was going wrong with
our society than the increasing numbers of people sleeping on the
streets of our city,'' Blair said. ''They became symbols of our
divided society, of the failure of policies aimed at the privileged

But Caroline Abrahams, Head of Public Policy at NCH Action for
Children warned that the problem ran more deeply. ''There is a serious
social problem of homeless young people (16 to 24 year olds) in this
country,'' she said, ''and those sleeping on the st reets are just the
tip of the iceberg.''

According to UNICEF, homeless young people are twice as likely to
suffer from chronic diseases such as respiratory or ear infections,
gastrointestinal disorders and sexually transmitted diseases,
including HIV/AIDS.

And children on the streets suffer from the cumulative effects of
poverty, hunger, family breakdown, social isolation, violence and
abuse. They are also immensely vulnerable to being drawn into
prostitution, drug abuse and criminal activity.

What is needed most, says UNICEF, is a determination to create
conditions that promote housing opportunities for all.

This means removing obstacles to housing, including the gap between
the minimum wage and the cost of decent accommodation, as well as
establishing partnerships with homeless people, support groups,
communities and local governments. Failure to take these steps, they
say, ''dooms countries to continuing crises of homelessness.''

Bellamy said Blair's announcement was a ''wake-up call'' for developed
countries. ''If the there is recognition of this issue by a leader of
a major developed country then that is a signal to all other developed
countries that homelessness needs to be ad dressed and that
governments have a responsibility to do so.'' (END/IPS/AW/RJ/98)


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