When child runaways are let down by the system

For those that don't already know much about me, from the age of ten up until I was sixteen I'd ran away from wherever I was then living around forty times.
Sure I had a load of tricks under my sleeve to help me stay undetected such as fake names and accents and taking different routes into London - but for some of those times I ran away I would be 'missing' sometimes for over six months without any communication with social workers.

I put the word 'Missing' in commas there because after some reflection on the whole thing, I'm not even sure if I really was.

OK so in my early London days at twelve years old living among the homeless in Whitechapel - I can understand how I slipped off the radar a little bit - and when I knew that social services and the police had found out I'd been hanging out around the Whitechapel area - I hadn't made it easier for them.
Already from the start I'd been calling myself 'Toby' and sporting a fake east end accent whilst claiming I was from the area.
In my mind back then, if the police had come into the local cafes asking around about a young lad from the West Midlands then it wouldn't bring the heat on me.

But once those days were over and I left the east end, although I'd been picked up by the police and taken back home a few times, still I'm surprised even to this day about how easy overall it was to stay undetected as a child runaway whilst being sat begging at the side of the road in places such as Green Park, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden.

By the time I was fourteen it had became obvious and apparent to me that I could roam and sleep rough in the west end at all hours of day or night and no-one would really bat an eyelid.
Even police officers that had previously taken me in and sent me back home had walked past me whilst I was sat begging on Piccadilly.
One of those 'Oh no I'm busted' moments - only to see him walk on as if he couldn't even remember me.
Perhaps he knew that I'd probably only run away back to the west end anyway.


For a good part of three years on and off, I would be passing through Piccadilly Circus and past the Eros statue at least three or four times a day and often hanging out there.
Why did nobody find me there? Even after the many times I'd been taken back and they knew I'd been sleeping rough and begging in the center of London.

Sure plenty of police had stopped me over my years in the west end, and before it finally sank in that nobody had really been searching for me there, I'd managed to get away from the police checks again using fake names and accents, and made up dates and places of birth.
But it shouldn't have happened.

In a way it was my own presumptions that had helped me stay under the radar even more.
In my earliest days in the west end at thirteen years old, when I'd been sat begging and saw police officers walking towards me - I thought surely a photo of me had gone around the station. But it seemed it never had, and not once during the many many police radio checks that I'd blagged through was there ever a sniff of hearing about a thirteen to fifteen year old runaway from the midlands possibly being in the area.

But even way before then, when I was going missing at ten, eleven, twelve years old it was no wonder I hadn't really been found by anyone for so long, as they'd been putting photos being put out of me from when I was much younger and with a different haircut.


For sure I have to take some responsibility for my own actions too, but come on - I was a kid.
Perhaps if I'd felt at any point that people wanted me found, then who knows, perhaps it would have reshaped my mindset a little.

But whether it's 1998 or 2019, no young person should be able to be so hidden in plain sight, missing from there foster parents or children's home and be able to get away with being a full time beggar and rough sleeper.
Sure I was a handful, and costing social services a lot of money in secure escorts every time I was caught - which quickly changed to me visiting Westminster City Hall to collect a travel warrant if I ever wanted to come back to the kids home.
But in what is known as the most CCTV'd up part of the country and with so many police officers around back then - how on earth did I get away with it for so long.

Mad that it can really even happen ay.
I'm glad that I've just written this.
Something for those helping to find missing children to think about.
Thanks for reading.

Ben.

You can find out more info about my book at
 https://benwestwood.wixsite.com/runaway




Being a rough sleeper in the west end from 13 years old.

I actually spent my 13th birthday around Victoria station when I was sleeping rough at the steps of the Apollo Theatre.
No doubt at night I made my way into what was then a recently opened 24-hour internet cafe across the road.

But as I explain in my book , I soon moved on from Victoria after personally discovering the more shadier aspects of living on the streets - and some of the risks I faced as a child/young teen runaway sleeping rough in London.


I then spent a few days or weeks sleeping all across the west end until I had decided to settle around the Green Park / Piccadilly area.
Although no child or young teenager should be living on the streets, I certainly could have chosen worse places, and the reason I had decided to settle down around Green Park was because of it's general feeling of safety.

Sure I still had people try to push drugs onto me, people offering money for sex and I was even robbed whilst laying down inside my sleeping bag by older middle-aged men... but still I'd felt safer there than being around the other areas of the west end where crack and heroin were rife.

I was skittish in my own way I guess until I'd discovered the day centre's a year or so later and started to make more friends.
But I think making new friends was what had kept me around Green Park anyway having being befriended by the nearby Evening Standard sellers and the lady working in the nearby Mercedes showroom whilst I was gouching on the steps of the tube station after hardly sleeping for months.

Those early days right before I met them were pretty dire... although I'd already learned to get a nights kip by making a cardboard box shelter - I think after what had happened to me in Victoria I generally felt unsafe sleeping out so would stay awake for so long that I'd often be falling asleep on train station steps whilst hallucinating from the sleep deprivation.

I'd mainly up until that point being getting by by pulling off my 'I need to get home which is miles away' scam outside the train stations. But after getting lifted by the undercover British Transport police it had started to put me off a bit.
Up until Green Park I hadn't discovered the homeless day centre's, soup runs and all that - and was only really begging when at my utter most desperate and hungry.

But once I settled around the Green Park area, it sort of became my sanctuary.
In my own way I enjoyed it, seeing my mates at the newspaper and flower stall and chatting to the same people that I saw every day.
Having the park right opposite me seemed somewhat a bit of a blessing considering the situation that I'd found myself in.
Even though I was sleeping in the doorway on Piccadilly, I was still able to join in with groups of people in the park that were playing football.
A rescued part of my youth so to speak.


By that time I was spending huge amounts of time in London without being caught and my doorway opposite Piccadilly was now somewhat my home.
When the weather wasn't too good or in the early mornings my chill-out space and washing facilities would be the nearby Starbucks which isn't there anymore.
The staff in there had started to get to know me a little in a way and would offer me the odd free coffee and drop me off a little something on their way home when they saw me in the doorway.


And of course, how could I forget the beautiful and brilliant family from Plantation in Florida.
A truly warm and magical moment throughout my times on Piccadilly and one of the events that humbles me that despite my own stories, things could have been so much worse there.
There were some truly magical souls, from all walks of life - such as the woman living in the nearby hotel residence that used to play scrabble with me on the side of the street, and Leah the hairdresser from Australia that invited me to come and live with her mates in Cricklewood.

And of course Matt Willis and James Bourne from the band Busted whom I remember taking me in off the streets one night to jam and chat with the lads.
James had given me his number and unknown to him that I was actually a runaway - he offered me to go on tour with the band.
Not that I would have passed through the security checks or managed to pull it all off, but one day I tried to call but the number had got soggy in my pocket and I couldn't see what I was dialing.
Some things are just not meant to be, but it was great to see them a year or so later when on the telly with a set of guitars and smashing it onstage.
I did indeed have a little chuckle and was to glad to know that they had made it.


Of course, there's much better ways to live your life than by sleeping on the side of a road.
Sometimes by doorway would be taken, but I was never one to mark my territory and there's plenty more doorways about.

At 33 years old now, I guess it's strange to think that for so long I slept among the sounds of footsteps, street-sweepers and passing traffic.
But however grim it sounds, I knew I'd be safer there than around Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road or Soho.


Anyhow, I'd just thought I'd share a bit of personal self-reflection about it all anyway.
If you've not already read Poems From a Runaway then you can read some samples of my book at https://benwestwood.wixsite.com/runaway/sample-poems

Signed copied available from my Wix site and it's also available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1981314350










Discovering soup kitchens at 12 years old.

Here's a photo of a place I knew back then as 'The Dellow Centre' which is now called Providence Row. It's a little different to how it used to be back then in the 90's.
My friend Joanne one day said "Come on we're going to a soup kitchen".... at 12 years old and coming from Staffordshire the words 'Soup Kitchen' were alien to me back then.


It has a very different feel in there these days, as time progresses.
I actually back in there one day about ten years ago whilst squatting area, and it was nothing like how I'd remembered it yet they still continue to help the east end's homeless get food, clothes and shelter.

As I explain in my book, back then in 90's there were rows of London's old age pensioners from back in the war and Whitechapels homeless population.

After my time being kidnapped and all that, I used to come here when I slept in the west end before I'd discovered the other day centers such as London Connections.
I could turn up at 2am, press the buzzer and they'd give me a blanket, socks, toiletries and a cup of tea.
A great service for homeless people actually as almost all the day centres and practical support services throughout the UK are usually only open for a handful of hours each day at the most.

I often have to mention this, but for anyone thinking "Why are they giving stuff to a runaway kid" then please understand I was a good blagger and could even fool police and get through radio checks by the time I was 12, often sporting a fake accent.


You can find read some of my book at https://benwestwood.wixsite.com/runaway/sample-poems

For more info about Providence Row visit https://www.providencerow.org.uk/

The first time that I ever slept rough in London

I'm just going through some of my photos from when I went to London to shoot them for the book.

Here's a photo of the first ever place in London that I'd ever slept rough at 12 years old after my friend Joanne had been placed into a secure unit. (Where the metal fence is)
It's Wentworth street which is just off Brick Lane in London's east end.


I'd be lying to say that I wasn't a bit scared to be honest.
Although I'd already been running away and sleeping rough across the West Midlands since the age of ten, sleeping rough at Brick Lane was a completely different experience.


I'd already been in the area a while after spending at least six months constantly running away to London and getting caught - but I never needed to sleep rough when I was with my friend Joanne. She always knew a place for us to go.
I'd got to know a lot of the local sex workers and drug users around the Whitechapel and Aldgate area, but in the late hours of the night until early morning it didn't help the place not feel any less shadier.

When Joanne got placed into secure unit (which was what she actually needed for her own safety), I was then out on my own on the London streets.
Over the coming years I soon learned the ways of the streets though.


You can find out more about my book at https://benwestwood.wixsite.com/runaway/sample-poems