Ben Westwood ran away from home when he was ten, and found himself bouncing in and out of the care system until he became an adult. In this poignant interview, Ben talks about life sleeping rough as a small boy, the realities of residential and foster care, and why he chose to write a poetry book about his experiences.
Ben also shares thought provoking ideas about how to provide better support for children in care and care leavers, and offers a special message for politicians and policy makers.
The interview features some touching moments, including memorable social workers, and families visiting London who were kind, as well as meeting famous bands and celebrities through chance encounters.
We would like to thank Ben very much for allowing us to interview him.
Ben’s book of poems can be found on Amazon, in paperback, or Kindle edition.
Ben, what was your life like before you entered the care system?
Despite growing up for a few years confused as to who my father actually was and lots of arguing at home between my mum and her then partner, I’d like to think that it was a reasonably normal council-estate kid childhood in many ways, both good and bad.
I got my arm broken at the age of six when a group of older kids jumped me whilst I was playing outside. My mum’s partner at the time thought I needed to learn to look after myself, so would organise fights in the streets with other lads in an attempt to toughen me up.
I never liked to fight however, and I’d be quite reluctant to throw a punch, and it wasn’t until I’d get hit myself that I may just may have thrown a punch back. Very depressing and something that shouldn’t happen to anyone. No-one should be forced into a fight.
A couple of years later we moved away from that street onto a council estate called the Springfields. One of my neighbours, a couple of years older was a striker for a local football team and needed a goalkeeper to practise with. His shots seemed quite powerful at the time, but after he gave me a few good goalkeeping tips and I fell in love with playing football.
Previous to all that I’d become a little obsessed with the Beatles after we did a school play about the 1960’s in primary school, but now my obsession was football. I was always encouraged to play outside, and I’d love to anyway, but it was around this time when my mum had met her new partner that I began to feel I was encouraged to play out a little too much, and when none of my friends were playing out I started to have a somewhat lonely childhood.
I was around ten years old by now. A lot of my days and weekends were then spent walking around, smoking cigarettes with older lads on the streets and stealing from shops. I’d started to get in trouble at school and I noticed it was stressing my mum out. When I’d got suspended from school I thought it was best for everyone that I left home, and that the first time I ever ran away from home.
How did you find yourself in care?
When I first came back home after running away, it felt like we had all been making an effort to get along for a while. But it wasn’t long until there had been an air of conflict at home and I was running away again.
This time in the middle of the night, and sometimes I had been picked up by the police and taken back and my mum hadn’t even known I’d been missing.
I was usually just walking for miles from town to town, or at least on my way there.
That’s when my mum and her partner thought it was best that I went into care.
What was the experience of being in care like for you?
Overall and in general, quite positive despite a couple of decisions I think social services could have made better, which affected my life, but social workers can only do to the best of their abilities. We can’t expect them to always be magicians, although thankfully I look back at some I had in my life that I consider special people.
I felt more like I could be myself more in care I suppose. The running away stopped initially until one day I was given a day’s notice to move from a foster home I’d really began to feel at home in.
The foster home I moved to was nice, but being the only foster kid in a house full of kids from the same family, I sort of felt a little like an outsider, and that’s when I ran away to London.
I had lived in several other foster homes after that as well as a few children’s homes. In the children’s homes I met some really great social workers that had really helped inspire me, but also quite a bit of red tape which made me sometimes feel a little outside of the reality of other young people.
In an ideal world it would be the same, but I guess it’s hard to get the ideal solution. It would have been nice to be able to go into the fridge and make some food like your mates can at home, and as a teenager it’s really frustrating when you feel your so outside of those basic things.
Every now and then though the staff office would get broken into and the cash tin stolen, so it’s understandable sometimes why things need to get locked away. If only we were living in an ideal world, ay.
My first experience of living in a children’s home was simply because there hadn’t been any foster placements available at the time.
The staff there were great but I quickly began feeling unsettled and getting in all sorts of trouble inside and outside of the home.
I still had a great time living at the home, and there were some very memorable social workers, but there just aren’t enough foster parents available on standby for confused and unsettled kids like I was.
Life in care could have certainly been a lot worse though. Coming from a background where pocket money and trips out doing what other kids do was pretty much non-existent until I went into care.
So when your foster parents tell you that social services have given you some money to spend on clothing and toiletries, or when the staff in the children’s home take you out on activity days, deep down a lot of kids in care really appreciate that I think.
Looking back overall, I feel I was extremely lucky to come across so many great foster parents and social workers, as well as many of the other kids in care that I’d also got to know. Quite a social life I guess.
Why did you run away?
I think that’s a question that has many factors to it, of which not many I could explain or was even conscious of at the time.
When I first started running away it was mainly to get away from the feelings of conflict at home. At my first two placements I never actually ran away, but I think by the time I’d got to my third foster home where I was in my own mind feeling a little bit like the outsider, I had wanted to live my life in independence free from any negative feelings or conflict was the honest truth.
By time I started running away to London and sleeping rough running away had become a regular thing. I’d just become very unsettled I guess, especially whilst in the children’s homes.
What is life like for a small boy sleeping rough?
Where do I start? Chaotic, yet lonely.
I think it’s affected my mental health in adult life a little, having to stay so on high-alert. Most people can lay in bed still when being awoken by a noise, but twenty years on I still shoot up out of bed and that’s me awake for many hours.
That’s what happens when you spend your mornings having to be moved by street cleaners or people trying to get into the inside of their shops.
At times it was very lonely, especially at times when I hadn’t eaten for days nor slept for weeks. I’d be pleading out for help to people whilst crying and starving and I had my days where nobody helped me or even spoke to me.
It’s strange to think a twelve or thirteen year old lad could go through such an experience during the 1990’s, but from personal experience I can tell you they do.
I’d been extremely lucky to have met a passing stranger that had warned me about the drug pushers in the west end that would offer me drugs for free and get me hooked. That advice was soon thankfully needed when the odd drug pusher did soon approach me.
I came across my fair share of sexual exploiters and predators during my time sleeping rough on the streets. Some would come up to me openly with cash and ask me to do sex acts whilst others took a more devious approach, of which one I’ve written about in the book where I was befriended and spiked before fending the man off. I don’t know how I did it to be honest I was so out of it, adrenaline or something maybe.
It wasn’t all dark and depressing however, and in many ways in which I really don’t want to glamourise I was lucky to have come across a few good souls who really showed me a lot of love. Without those people of all ages in my life who had become friends during my time on the streets, it would have been a completely different experience.
Thankfully I knew the areas to avoid in the west end where the social effects of hardcore drugs were at their worst. I did sleep rough in places such as Soho and Tottenham Court Road a few times, but not very often because when most people go home at the end of the night you see how dodgy things can really get. Certainly not a safe place to be for a young teenager like me.
In the end, through many series of depressing and traumatic events you learn to develop a thick skin in a way. There were times I had cardboard over me and I had awoken to the sounds of drunk people urinating on it, or other older homeless people trying to bully me off my patch, you learn to deal with it in the end, and life on the streets can quickly change with people moving on to other places in life.
As a young runaway it was difficult to open up to people about who I really was. When people did come and ask me about why I was living on the streets, I’d have to lie about my age and make up stories.
That sort of got in the way of things looking back now, it was hard to truly open up to people about anything really just in fear of being caught and taken back home. I did try to remain as true to myself as possible, but I ended up pulling all sorts of tricks to stay undetected such as fake names and accents so that the police wouldn’t find me.
I think in a subtle way it put up a few invisible barriers at times with me and other people. Not to say I hadn’t connected with some people, but I was waiting for the day I was sixteen and didn’t have to pretend to anybody anymore.
Were there any good moments you remember?
Yeah, quite a few to be honest, in my own way despite all the depressing and traumatic stuff I went through, I had a sort of adventure.
One lady that was staying in the Athenaeum hotel on Piccadilly would come and play scrabble with me on the street.
I met a famous rock band just before they got famous. I thought they were just fibbing until we got to their hotel room and I saw the guitars and stuff everywhere. They invited me to be their roadie on tour but the paper I had written their number on had got damaged in the rain.
One of the memories I treasure most was when a family came over from Florida and were staying in the Park Lane Hotel on Piccadilly. After their kids dropping me off some breakfast whilst I was asleep in a doorway I met the whole family whom I bonded with for a few days.
It was one of those ‘hard to say goodbye’ moments when they left and just something to me that feels really memorable and touching.
There were heaps more good moments. I was lucky to have some brief friendships with people from different countries and cultures, I met a few more celebrities briefly, street parties at Piccadilly Circus. I could go on forever.
What was the worst experience you had during this period?
I think it was the initially event that led me to start sleeping rough in Central London that was the worst. I’d been befriended by a guy in a homeless day centre that offered me somewhere to stay. A couple of days later he held me up with a machete, locked me in his flat and when I shouted out of the window for help I was ignored by a member of the public.
Getting sick whilst living on the streets during the winter was a tough one, there were times I thought I might die whilst living on the streets and I’d have to drag myself off to hospital with a fake name and date of birth. That along with the sleep deprivation and a poor diet at times meant it was quite a desperate and bizarre experience at times.
It was something I went through pretty much on my own.
You chose to write a book of poems about your experience – why poetry rather than prose?
Certain friends and people I’ve met in life that have got to know me have mentioned for years that I should write a book about my childhood story about living on the streets. I’ve even tried a few times, but I’m more than aware of what happens to me when I bring up old feelings.
I can willingly chat in depth to a friend about some of my stories on the streets, but what tends to happen is that without realising it for a few days, I can easily become depressed and malfunction. I knew that if I did a book in poetry, I’d sort of have another challenge to focus on instead of simply writing about the same old memory in a usual way.
I was worried after writing the poem about being kidnapped that I’d get a malfunction and had given myself a few days in advance to have a break if needed, but thankfully writing it in poetry had helped and I managed to carry on writing the book with the same passion I had before.
There was another reason also for me writing it in poetry, and that was because I wanted to create a book that was easily readable and perhaps I’d get a few people into reading that hadn’t read for a while as well as gaining support from regular book lovers.
Some of my earliest childhood memories were of reading old A.A. Milne poetry books that were in my toy box. He’s the guy that’s better known for writing Winnie-The-Poo, but what had inspired me was his poetry about London’s homeless sleeping on park benches and getting wet in the rain.
I’d not really accessed these memories at all until one day I started writing a poem which is in the book called ‘Free Drinks On Haymarket’. It’s about me being around thirteen and walking into a Sports Bar on Haymarket and telling the barman I was a footballer playing for Walsall FC reserves and in London for a football match against Millwall.
After having a little chuckle as I was reminiscing about old times, I thought that by adding a little humour to it that not only would it be a fun experience for me to write but that it would also reflect when people read it, instead of it just being a sad story.
What kind of impact would you like the poems to have?
There are a few things really, mainly though I just want to shed some light into the mind of a young runaway going through the foster care system.
There were many times I’d felt unable to share my true feelings to foster parents and social workers, but here I am writing a book in hindsight and baring all after finally becoming conscious of it.
I know there are other kids going through the same. For whatever reason social workers are baffled as to why kids are always running away or truanting and maybe in a way my book will help gain some insight to those working with young people similar to how I was.
I think also some of my stories are useful to know for those helping to find missing teenagers such as the police and other organisations.
To think I was managing to maintain a life sleeping rough in the middle of London and evading police by giving fake names and speaking fake accents surely must mean I can’t be the only one.
Also I think this book sheds a light on what it’s like to be a rough sleeper of any age. I certainly had my moments of experience homeless stigma like not being allowed into certain shops or cafes because I often had a big rucksack with a sleeping bag poking out of it.
If you could deliver a message to our politicians, what would it be?
Ok, so by the time people are sixteen to eighteen they aren’t children anymore but young people. But I do believe a much needed message also beams out of this trending Twitter hashtag.
I think it’s hard for a young person to understand how much support they’ll need in their adult life. There are some people out there that have done quite well for themselves, but I don’t think anyone can say they’ve done anything truly on their own.
Whether it’s emotional support and advice or practical, there are a lot of people that leave the care system to then go on spending their whole adult lives often struggling to know where to even begin with the most basic of support.
It’s a shame that many people I’ve met and myself included, can leave care and just hope and pray for any sort of support that comes their way.
It can take many years to know ourselves and understand the effects of what we’ve been through. Some people themselves don’t even understand what they’ve been through until they’ve got older which is why I think there needs to be more support for people that grew up in care.
Often with nobody to turn to, at least we could get a letter every ten years asking if we were alright or needed any sort of support.
I’m one of the lucky ones that’s managed to get through writing a book and publishing it through the kindness of people I don’t even know very well, and much of it through pleas on the internet.
Along with my music and social media rantings I guess I make it easier for people to feel they can trust me.
But there’s millions of people in the world not as fortunate to have gone down the same path, and feel they have nowhere to turn.
Then we lock them up for selfish and antisocial behaviour after we’ve taught them to live in a dog eat dog world where no-one’s going to look out for them but themselves.
A lot of the homeless I met living on the streets were care leavers, but I don’t think it would happen if they were someone at least offered the chance of guidance and support through their adult years.
Not everyone can be healed by 21, or 25. It would be ideal if they were, but we shouldn’t give up so easily on people that have hopes and dreams, however basic.
Thank you so much, Ben.