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Wayne's world is cider without Tony

Shaun Pye, below, reports on the reactions of homeless young people to the promises of their local candidates and the leaders

Like many other 18-year-olds, Wayne would like to be a fireman. But when he did some work-experience at a station, he found he needed qualifications in English, maths and science to gain admittance to fire training school. He rates his prospects as "no chance".

Wayne has been without a proper home, and spending time on the streets of Manchester, for two years. He is reluctant to say why, and he looks ill. A front tooth is green with decay, his weight has dropped from 14st to 9st, and he's been surviving on Pounds 75.80 benefit a fortnight since he lost his last job as a trainee croupier after "getting into trouble with the police". He has just spent Pounds 2 of that allowance on some super-strength cider.

While the nation ponders who should govern for the next five years, Wayne cannot see beyond basic survival. Walter Greenwood Court, a hostel in Salford for homeless 16 to 25-year-olds, where he stays sometimes, is being closed and he dreads ending up back at Hardwick Green, Manchester's main direct access hostel. "It's hell - filthy and full of junkies," he says.

Last week a meeting was arranged by NCH Action For Children, a leading charity, to see how local parliamentary candidates could help the Walter Greenwood residents. Wayne wasn't ecstatic. He said: "I can't be bothered to vote. If I saw John Major I'd just chin the bastard."

Sarah, 18, who has a year-old son, has been homeless for two years after being beaten up and kicked out by her ex-boyfriend. She told the candidates: "I don't want to leave here. My son was born here, my friends are all here, it's safe."

The newspapers had suggested that old people could be moved out of their council accommodation to make way for Walter Greenwood residents. Wayne came to life: "Anybody who wants to make old folks homeless is sick. I'll fight them all the way."

Robert, 23, homeless since his parents ejected him eight years ago, said: "There are 5,000 people homeless in Manchester, yet when I walk around Salford I see rows of flats with boarded-up windows. Why not take the boards down so homeless people can live in those places?" Norman Ord, Liberal Democrat councillor and candidate for Salford, said Greenwood Court was being closed because of major structural weaknesses. The council had accrued Pounds 37 million from house sales which it could use for repairs or new hostels, but the Government would not allow it. Hazel Blears, Labour candidate in Salford, said that her party would free up the housing cash, and create 250,000 work or training opportunities for people under 25, using money from the windfall levy on privatised utilities.

Robert said: "I'll be voting for Tony Blair. He gave a speech in February at the launch of House Our Youth 2000. He'll do the most for the homeless. I don't know very much about the Lib Dems."

Asked whether or not other issues, such as the environment, were important, Robert said: "No. Why should I care about green politics? Are they going to build more parks for me to sleep in?" But the meeting revealed that, of these young people, no one who was intending to vote had registered. According to John Turner, chairman of the Association of Electoral Administration, the deadline was March 20. But Sarah hadn't received a form, and John, 22, said that endless forms gave him writer's cramp.

Mr Turner said that efforts were being made to get homeless people on the electoral roll; forms had been sent to hostels and given out on the streets. One voter in Norwich did manage to get his address listed as "Marks Spencer's doorway".

Wayne hasn't been swayed by the candidates, anyway. "We met and it filled in an afternoon. But it's all mumbo-jumbo," he says "They spent most of the time arguing with each other."

It was a fair point. At the meeting, after a few initial questions, the residents struggled to get a word in between some detailed dissection of council policy. Wayne says: "They live in a different world. Get Tony Blair to live like we do. He'll stop drinking champagne and start on the cider within a week."

There are no official statistics for the number of young homeless people. The following information comes from research by voluntary organisations and academics: * There are 100,000 homeless people aged between 16 and 25 in Britain.

* There are 45,000 homeless people in London.

* Forty per cent of young people helped by Centrepoint, a charity for the homeless, are women.

* Half of young homeless people have spent some time in care.

* A third of callers to Childline said they had fled home to escape sexual or physical abuse, and a further third had been kicked out.

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