“In this place, the only thing that grows quickly and properly is darkness”.
The names in this article have been changed.
Kane is 22, and has been homeless for more than half a decade.
He is describing to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism the clusters of tents and areas of rough sleepers that congregate in the underpasses and subways of Milton Keynes - dubbed “tent city” in the UK press.
Why are there so many young people living on the streets of MK? Speaking to them, no one single factor emerged. Rather, eroded family ties, mental health and problematic drug use were among the reasons highlighted.
Kane likens it to a jungle.
Five years ago his relationship with his family broke down and he left London, where he had grown up, for Milton Keynes.
After a brief stay at the YMCA, Kane’s shelter today is a tent in an underpass in the town, where according to charity Shelter, one in every 110 people is homeless.
He is one of an alarmingly large group of young people sleeping rough in Milton Keynes – a third of its rough sleeping population are under 25 while the national average is eight per cent.
The 50-year-old town has the second highest number of 18- to 25-year-olds living on the street in the country. The only local authority with a higher number of young rough sleepers is Hillingdon, whose figures are distorted by the large influx of people at Heathrow Airport.
The irony is that Milton Keynes was built in the 1960s as a way of alleviating London’s post-war housing crisis. It also has money to spend – grants from central government to tackle homelessness, as well as a council that has substantial cash reserves unlike several other local authorities.
The government’s figures on rough sleepers in Milton Keynes says none are under 18 years old, but some are clearly younger.
Just 17, James* – who describes himself as “Milton Keynes born and bred” – has been homeless for a year. His childhood was not easy: he was a young carer for his mother from about the age of 10 and had four or five social workers through the years.
He ran away from home after the relationship with his mother became abusive.
James spent nights sofa-surfing at friends’ houses when he could. Otherwise, he slept on a camping mat on the streets until he found a temporary place in a charity hostel.
He is no longer able to work because of mental health problems but is hoping to find a room he can rent with housing benefit once he turns 18.
The desire for a “normal life” is consistent among the MK’s young rough sleepers.
Daniel *, a 24-year-old who became homeless when his roommate lost his job and could no longer afford to pay his share of the rent, prays every night. “I pray that my life will get better, I pray to get back into work, I pray to reunite with my friends and family,” he says passionately. “I want to get myself a job, settle down and have a family. I want to live the life that everyone else is living.”
vide comfort to some but practical support is needed to lift young people out of homelessness. The inequality in Milton Keynes threatens the future of the area’s young people, and undermines the vision behind the creation of the city in the first place: not just a town of extra housing, but a connected grid of estates and green spaces, that worked for both cars and pedestrians.
The council says that tackling homelessness is a priority and Labour councillor for housing Nigel Long says he aims to end street homelessness by 2020. The council certainly isn’t facing the financial constraints affecting other authorities - it has cash reserves of over £200m.