How did a 13 year old child live out rough in Central London and go unnoticed?
Updated: Jun 19
A lot of reflection came after writing a book about my childhood being a runaway living on the streets of London and missing from care. Despite networking with foster carers, social workers and care leavers to try and add my little contribution into those speaking up for and about the care system, for me there's still one big question that blows my mind.
How on earth did it all really happen?
Perhaps in this country we don't want to admit that too many of our children are still invisible to most people out there. When writing Poems From a Runaway I really wanted people to know how real and extreme that reality can be. I'll also be sharing below 5 highly-overlooked tips to help identify child runaways posing as homeless adults.
By thirteen years old I was living in doorways and on the side of the road in the busiest parts of Central London such as Piccadilly and Leicester Square.
Some of those times I had been feeling like a complete hologram when things were at their worst, and on my days where thousands of people would witness me breaking down in tears from sleep deprivation and hunger yet do nothing - but then again, at other times, there were a few angels amongst them too. But the simple fact that I was able to convince everyone from the police, day centres, hostels, the big issue office and largely the general public that I was a fully grown adult might just be a sign that we need to start observing the world and some of those around us a little better as a society.
The reason being, is because I don't think I was a particularly great actor and despite being able to fool most people with my fake accents and stories of why I was homeless, much more cunning and predatory people often saw through it and had unknowingly to me sussed I was a runaway.
I don't want to live in a world where thirteen year olds can sleep rough for years on Piccadilly W1, or by the Eros statue, or in big well-lit doorways in Leicester Square. Sure I had my ways and means trying to stay under the radar, but really most of it should never have happened.
With my book being written in an often upbeat and sometimes humorous tone, some might think that I'm trying to glamorise the subject of children going missing. In reality though, I want to highlight how easy it was for me to stay undetected and in many ways how I was given up on by the social services and the police system whom often knew roughly my whereabouts.
Sadly most people won't have the time to care about it, there's much more fun things for them to think about. Others will walk the earth with open eyes and hearts and make that connection with the unseen almost effortlessly.
The next time people see a young face on the street, perhaps some should take a few seconds to try and find out if that young person is an adult or a child.
I myself was able to dodge around questions with quick fire made up answers, but here are five tips to help you find out more if you ever come across someone on the streets that you suspect might be a child runaway. If you do suspect they are a runaway then it's always worth letting the local authorities know because it is so important to remember how observant those that prey on vulnerable people can be. You can also contact The Runaway Helpline, ran by the charity 'Missing People' on freephone 116000
Young person dodges help with getting benefit claims running and housing advice.
Being able convince everyone that I was 18+ meant that sometimes kind people did really go out of their way to help me when I was sleeping rough. Some of them would try and help me to get housing advice and benefit claims. Obviously that wouldn't have been possible at 13 yrs old and I knew that and would have to make up excuses.
Although there are legitimate reasons as to why some people struggle to get their benefit claims going or any help with housing, a young person overly-avoidant on seeking that sort of help might be a strong indicator that they are a missing young person.
2. Young person shuts down certain questions quickly or gives extremely brief answers.
Unlike the Walter Mitty's of this world, lying was something I never really enjoyed to do. Any of my stories given to curious people that had wondered about my life and why I was out sleeping on the street were given purely just to guide them away from the fact that I was a runaway.
I'd give answers, but there wouldn't have been much emotion attached to the stories.
If a young person is responding to deep and personal questions in an extremely vague manner and with seemingly little emotion attached to it, then this could be a sign that something isn't quite right.
3. The young person has little knowledge of the area and popularly known landmarks.
This one here should ring alarm bells if you're ever chatting with a young person that claims to be homeless on the street. It's surprising how many people had never seemed to question my lack of knowledge of a particular area. It sounds so simple but people often forget to ask "Why is this young person homeless in a place they hardly know?"
Most homeless adults that can prove their age develop an understanding of an area quickly through networking with other homeless people and discovering day services. As runaways are often less inclined to do this, it can take much longer to discover places that most other homeless people in the area could tell you about.
4. Unusually upbeat at times despite destitute circumstances.
OK, so not everyone that has ended up on the streets should forever be sad and gloomy and everyone needs a laugh sometime to keep going. But a young person like I was that can live on the street and yet at times be full of cheer and confidence could indeed be another sign that something isn't right about the situation.
Maybe I'm a random egg, but during my time as a child and teenage runaway I was able to crack jokes with the passing public and sing songs willy-nilly, all whilst having my legs under a sleeping-bag.
But that all changed as soon as I hit around 16 years old and started seeing other teenage boys my age walking down the street with their friends and girlfriend.
This was the point that pride kicked in, something that I didn't really think about beforehand.
If a young person seems content on the street, as if the world around them is their home, this indeed could be another strong indicator that the young person is a runaway. As mentioned earlier, this does happen in this country.
5. Unusually brash and loud when dealing with confrontations on the street.
OK, so this is likely a survival strategy adopted by people on the streets of all ages, but I think it's certainly something not to be overlooked.
In my years on the streets as a child runaway, and not just with my own experiences but also observing other runaways it's obvious that being loud and brash to scare potential threats away was often our first port of call, largely due to not being as psychically strong as most of the adults out there that saw us as prey.
Being overly brash and even threatening violence to potential threats might seem very off-putting to a lot of people, but it was our way of saying "Hey world, I need some help, I need to scare this person away." Many times it worked for me and predatory people would scuttle away or run off. I reckon a lot of people would assume a young person doing that was suffering from mental health issues, on drugs or has some sort of personality disfunction - but sometimes taking just two minutes to chat with a person can be the deciding factor between believing your own assumptions or learning more about a situation.
By Ben Westwood.
Poems From a Runaway is available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1981314350
To find out how you can read it for free, as well as my other projects visit https://www.benwestwooduk.com/post/free-downloads
If you are concerned about a young person that you believe could be a runaway then you can seek advice by calling the Runaway Helpline for free on 116000
By Ben Westwood