Against a background of severe budgetary restraints for local authorities, it may not come as a surprise that the number of rough sleepers on Britain’s streets has more than doubled since 2010. In the same period, the number of care applications has grown by roughly a third, reaching 14,599 between April 2016 and March 2017* as vulnerable parents struggle to cope with less support.

BBC3’s ‘Love and Drugs on the Street’ highlights the complex backgrounds of women living on the streets of Brighton, the city which has seen the highest increase in rough sleepers in the last seven years (over half of the homeless population there have arrived from elsewhere). Around three quarters of women sleeping on the streets have had children removed from their care,** and almost all of them have faced abuse and neglect from their own caregivers as children. ‘It’s a cycle’ says Jojo, a 21-year-old care leaver who smokes the synthetic cannabinoid ‘spice’, and recently found out that her mother had died of a drug overdose. ‘What happened to my mum, that’s what’s happening to me.’ Jojo is one of the rough sleepers who have come to Brighton from elsewhere. She was previously living in Southampton and is searching for community in a new city. ‘I can’t understand how you can do six months on the street’ the camera woman tells Jojo. ‘Because I’ve been in care my whole life’ she says, ‘I always felt homeless anyway, in care. I had a bed, but it wasn’t home.’

Paige is also 21; she tells the camera that she has been sleeping rough, on and off, for seven years, and often pitches her tent in a graveyard at night. She has been in and out of hostels and temporary accommodation, and says that she has never felt able to stay for very long because it can feel so lonely. Life on the streets is unimaginably hard, but being left alone with her thoughts can be harder. Paige has struggled with mental health problems throughout her life, and says frankly, ‘I know how I ended up in this situation. It was because of the way my mental health deteriorated.’ She is offered temporary accommodation in New Haven, 9 miles from Brighton, and speaks about how lonely she feels there – she has a bed and a roof over her head, but her friends and support network seem very far away.

Paige has a two-year-old daughter who is the subject of care proceedings. During the filming of the documentary, the court decides to make an adoption order, and Paige sees her daughter for what could be the last time until she turns 18. ‘It was the worst feeling, it’s like one of your limbs being taken away from you,’ she says. After a particularly bad night’s sleep she talks to the camera about the effect that motherhood has had on her life and ability to cope on the street. ‘I think having my little girl probably made me a little bit weaker for all of this, it really did. Before having her…it was just me against the world. But now I still feel like I’ve somehow got to protect her.’

On Kings Road, which runs along the seafront, we meet Maria, who is preparing to inject heroin with her long-term partner. ‘I started using drugs just over two years ago to heal the pain of losing my children’ she says, ‘and now I have quite a severe heroin habit. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy’. Like Paige, she talks about the guilt and shame that come with feeling she has failed to protect her children, ‘I think about my kids, my family, it’s a vicious circle. I think about my kids a lot and how I’m a disgrace to them right now. I will make them proud one day, but right now I don’t see a way out.’

Each of the women in the documentary speak of the feelings of guilt and shame that they
have for their situation, and how they feel they have failed their children by repeating a pattern of neglect but don’t know how to move forward. Maria says she thinks that she could get clean if she had housing and the right support, but living on the streets she needs something to help her switch her thoughts off. She tells the camera that she lived with her grandparents for several years, but after an argument one night she was kicked out onto the street aged 16. With no support and nowhere to turn, she was unable to get back on her feet. ‘I’ve lost two babies to care. I’ve had a s****y life and been abused and you know what? If people saw the bigger picture, they would not judge me at all.’

The women’s experiences demonstrate the reasons why child protection is such a complex and delicate area of law – it must balance the protection of vulnerable children with respect for family life, and the importance to a child of growing up in a home with their family. A lack of understanding into the vulnerabilities of parents, mothers in particular, can contribute to the cycle of neglect and abuse. Once the court has decided that a child should be taken into the care of the local authority, the options available are far from perfect – not all children who cannot live at home find loving adoptive families or long-term foster placements, and almost half will struggle with long term mental health problems^. In its Review of Child Care Law of 1985, the Department of Health and Social Services pointed out ‘A distinction is often drawn between the interests of children and the interests of their parents. In the great majority of families, this distinction does not exist.’^^ Love and Drugs on the Street illustrates that over 30 years later, the most vulnerable families are still not able to access the support they need to stay together.

Love and Drugs on the Street: Girls Sleeping Rough is available on BBC iPlayer

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*Cafcass care demand statistics
**St Mungo’s ‘Rebuilding Shattered Lives’ (2012)
^(Office for National Statistics, 2004)
^^(DHSS, Review of Child Care Law. Report to Ministers of an Interdepartmental Working Party (London HMSO 1985) 2.8)

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