Evening Standard (London), Jun 9, 2006 by JOHANN HARI
FOR most gay people, London is a liberal bubble – one of the world’s safe places. From the gloriously scuzzy streets of Soho, it can seem like millennia of homophobia have passed in the night like a bad nightmare. But for the thousands of teenage gay runaways who head for our streets every year, homophobia has burned away even their bonds with their parents – and they are in extreme danger even when they arrive here in Shangri-La.
Meet Ronnie Andrews. He lights a cigarette, runs his hand over his shaved head and begins – in his fractured, halting speech – to explain how he ended up here.
"My mum’s boyfriend kicked me out three years ago, when I was 16," he says, looking away. "He found out I was gay, and said I was a pervert, diseased, all that. He told me never to come back, and never to see my mum and my little sisters again. He said I was a bad influence on them."
He slept on a bench in the local park, and tried to go back the next day.
His mum’s boyfriend threatened him, and he got the message.
Ronnie found himself alone in the world with a bag of clothes, a load of neuroses and nothing more. He began a long period of "sofa- surfing" – moving from friend to friend, slowly eroding their hospitality until he was chucked out.
"I lost a lot of friends and upset a lot of people. I was always drunk. I was taking the piss. I didn’t have anything to offer them. Or they just got bored with me."
Desperate, he began to exchange sex for favours. "I still remember the first man. It was disgusting. He was really old, and I had never had sex before. It was really painful, I was shaking, but I needed the money so I tried not to think about it." And with the pain of prostitution came pills and coke, the inevitable cliches of life on the street.
He picks at his nails as he relays all this, but he serves up this narrative in a strangely emotionless tone. I ask if he is angry with his mother for not sticking up for him. "No, I didn’t want her to get involved. I knew she loved [her boyfriend]." It is only when I offer a streak of empathy – it must have been horrific, I say – that I see a crack of emotion. His face involuntarily scrunches and he says: "Trust me, it was."
Ronnie skidded into a lucky streak when a friend pointed him towards Stonewall Housing, one of the very few organisations that help the 30 per cent of London’s runaways who are gay or lesbian, and tossed out by parents who hate gays more than they love their kids. They found him a flat, and – with industrial-strength antidepressants – he is starting to tend to his wounds.
But this hardly ever happens to runaways. Incredibly, Martin Houghton-Brown, policy adviser for the Children’s Society, tells me there are only 10 emergency beds in the whole of Britain for the 100,000 children who run away every year. That’s 10 – no misprint.
"Compare that to the US, where every major city has drop-in centres, and there are 17,000 permanent hostel places," he says. Local councils are supposed to provide emergency accommodation, "but we often hear them say to a very vulnerable runaway, ‘There’s no room now, come back in a week,’" Martin explains.
There are thousands of kids like Ronnie clamouring to enter our liberal bubble here in Zone One. What does it say about us that we leave them to sell their bodies and their souls on the streets?
– Gay runaways can call Stonewall Housing’s advice line on 020 7359 5767.
Thursday, 22 March, 2001, 16:58 GMT
Britain’s runaway children could be offered counselling and a roof over their heads, the prime minister has suggested.
Every year 77,000 British children under 16 run away from home for at least one night.
Many flee physical or mental abuse at home, and a quarter end up sleeping on the streets with some surviving through begging, stealing, drug dealing and prostitution.
The consultation report was launched on Thursday by Tony Blair, who said it was important to find out why so many children run away and why so many are reluctant to return home again.
He said: "We have to make it less likely that young people run away in the first place and, if they do run, ensure their immediate safety.
"And we must not just turf them back where they came from without finding out why they ran away and addressing these issues."
The consultation process will be carried out by the government’s Social Exclusion Unit.
The unit will work with runaways and goverment departments to formulate future policy.
The document, launched by the prime minister, suggest runaways who are found on the street should be identified and interviewed.
A network of refuge provision and reintegration support could ensure that runaways have the option of shelter.
It is also suggested that each area will have standardised procedures for dealing with runaways, and a named person will be in charge of co-ordinating services.
The consultation document has been welcomed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
A spokeswoman said: "These children face enormous risks and trauma, often hiding and alone on our streets. It is crucial we take their needs seriously and ensure they are safe and supported in the long-term."
The NSPCC is urging the Government to set up a nation-wide network of targeted protection and prevention services to support children who run away.
The society pointed out that, although there is a statutory provision for accommodation for runaway children, there is only one left in the whole country, the London Refuge.
Madeline Ismach, NSPCC London director, said: "Thousands of vulnerable children run away every year.
"The Refuge provides a safe place where young people can talk about the problems which forced them to run away and aims to