'Runaway army' gathers after dark

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 1998, 12:00am

DOZENS more all-night social workers are needed to combat the growing army of teenage runaways spending nights on the streets, charity group Youth Outreach says.

Peter Newbery, executive director of the teenage crisis counselling centre, said this week: 'No one really knows how serious the problem is. But we know the more workers we have on the streets, the more youngsters they find needing our help.

'The more work we do, the bigger this gets. I have to conclude there's a need for 100, even 200 workers.' Youth Outreach's staff of full-time workers has grown to 11 this year, compared with six a year ago.

Working in mobile teams, they cover the New Territories, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, working from midnight to 6am.

The charity estimates up to 30,000 children under the age of 16 run away from home each year, almost eight times the number reflected by official police statistics. Mr Newbery said: 'We are now dealing with between 500 and 600 cases a month, and 10 per cent of these may end up in our residential centre.

'And this figure doesn't include the kids who refuse point blank to accept our help.

'But you can't just compare this figure to the number we were dealing with a year ago because experience proves it's like digging a ditch.' The more you dig, the more you find, he said.

Feedback from teenagers and outreach workers shows the problem has worsened since the economic crisis started last year as parents spend more time working and financial worries increase tension in families.

Mr Newbery said: 'Family units are falling to pieces, they're in a desperate state.

'When there is an economic downturn most people do not reduce their lifestyles, they just work harder to keep where they are.

'There is no time left to spend with their kids. Kids don't want to be out on the streets, but sometimes it may appear to them to be preferable to being at home.' The Social Welfare Department is monitoring the Youth Outreach programme and similar work in the New Territories by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups.

Police figures show about 3,500 children under the age of 16 are reported as runaways each year, but Mr Newbery says that figure is the tip of the iceberg.

'All those figures tell us is there are 3,500 parents who are very concerned about their children. That is not the same as saying how many kids are on the streets,' he said.