Farewell youth clubs, hello street life – and gang warfare
With budget cuts leading to the loss of facilities that kept many inner-city youths occupied, experts predict a rise in crime
guardian.co.uk, Friday 29 July
2011 19.06 BST
'There will be riots over youth club closures'
On a warm afternoon in Wood Green, north London, Aaron, 15, weaved on his bike through harassed pedestrians, a hat – worn under a hood – pulled low over his eyes, despite the sunshine.
He was out here, he said, because his local youth club had closed. "I used to go to youth clubs but now there's nothing to do. We're just out here, getting up to no good." He looked around at the people staying out of his way, and added: "People are intimidated by us."
He was arrested the day before for something he said he "didn't even do", and blamed the closure of his youth club for the fact he is stopped more often by police.
"When we are all together with our hoodies up, no one wants to be around us," he said. "The youth club was just a place we could all go and have fun, at least we had somewhere to go. Now we walk down the streets, we get pulled over by police. There is nothing here for us."
Aaron is one of hundreds of youngsters in the north London borough of Haringey whose youth clubs were shut after the youth services budget was slashed by 75% after a cut of £41m to the council's overall budget. Hundreds of thousands of young people throughout the UK are affected.
Gang experts, MPs and sector workers are warning that these cuts – which have hit youth services harder than any other area of local authority spending, according to the education select committee – could have a serious impact on the safety of young people in urban areas.
For Aaron the dangers of the street are real. His friend Negus McClean bled to death from stab wounds to his chest after he was attacked by a gang in nearby Edmonton. His attackers have not yet been arrested.
"People are getting stabbed these days over postcodes ... people getting stabbed up, people getting robbed, their house burgled, bare stuff is going on right now. Bare stuff, it's crazy."
The future of some organisations attempting to combat this postcode warfare is under threat. Erika Lopez, 19, one of the organisers of Hype (Haringey Young People Empowered), a youth-led group that tackles gang and postcode violence through activities such as football tournaments held in neutral areas, said its future is uncertain.
The council is charging the organisation to use rooms that used to be free and future funding is unlikely. The young people involved are starting to drift away, she said.
"They are like, 'if it doesn't matter to the council and to the government then why should it matter to us?'
"I'm upset but what can we really do about it? It's not like we've got a chance to win in a fight against the government."
Erika has first-hand experience of what can happen when postcode rivalries erupt. After taking a friend from the "wrong" postcode to another friend's 18th birthday party, she found herself on the floor with a gun held to her face.
"The trigger jammed," she said, matter-of-factly. "They were trying to fire it but the trigger stuck and that's when they punched me in the face. I'm only here because of God's will."
Godwin Lawson was also a Hype member and a footballer who played for Oxford United. In March last year the 17-year-old was back in London to see friends and family when he was attacked by a gang.
"He had one stab wound straight in his heart and he died straight away," said his mother, Yvonne Lawson.
Surrounded by photos of her boy, his Oxford United shirt framed on the wall, she said the consequences of his death have been "beyond pain".
The streets are getting worse, she said. "Every day you switch the television on and you hear about one stabbing after another. You are scared for your life, for your children's life – for the whole community."
Experts in the sector fear that the positive work achieved in recent years could be lost, perhaps forever, as a result of the cuts.
Jonathan Toy, head of community safety and enforcement at Southwark council, said local authorities were being forced to scale back their gang work and focus on the most problematic individuals and areas.
But each murder investigation in the borough costs £1.5m so cutting programmes does not make financial sense.
"It takes a long time to build up these relationships," he said. "Losing programmes is cost-ineffective and the impact is you lose some of that trust and confidence you have built up in that community."
The government is keen for the voluntary sector to take on the challenges posed by gang culture, announcing £18m to help charities tackle knife, gun and gang crime. But a sign taped to the wall of the Pedro club in Hackney, a youth club where founder James Cook and volunteers have been tackling gang problems since 2003, gives an indication of the challenges they face: "Do not bring weapons on to these premises as you will be searched by metal detectors."
Former gang member Sasha, now 17 and helping in the club, said getting a gun is as easy as making a phone call "if you know the right people". She knows this because, when in the gang, she had an "altercation" with a girl and made that call.
"Ten minutes later my friend was in Tottenham with a gun to her face. I didn't have no problems after that."
Knives are even easier. "You can pick them up in Argos," she said, explaining that since stop and searches became more frequent, blade stashes can be found all over the borough. "They could be in a garden underneath a plant, in an abandoned building, anywhere really."
Reaching young people in gangs is difficult, time-consuming and often intimidating, according to Kevin, a former youth worker who lost his job in the cuts in Hackney and does not want to give his surname. "You need to know how to deal with it, you need dedicated frontline staff. If you get it wrong – they take it personally. If we have a hot summer holiday expect front pages, because kids are going to die."
Others worry that a perfect storm of unemployment, the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance and a squeeze on programmes to help disadvantaged youths could bring more than just a rise in crime figures and result in a "lost generation".
"The young people in Tottenham, they are not so much a community within a community, they are a community beyond the community, with their own rules, their own codes, their own hierarchy," said Symeon Brown, 22, who helped run a campaign to prevent the cuts in Haringey. "How do you create a ghetto? By taking away the very services that people depend upon to live, to better themselves."
Professor John Pitts, who has researched gang behaviour for more than 40 years, says the "annihilation" of youth services, coupled with academies likely to favour middle-class students over disadvantaged children, could further disconnect young people from society and result in more entrenched gangs.
"Services are not just being taken away from young people, they are being taken from poor young people," he said.
"At a simple level that could mean an increase in antisocial behaviour and vandalism. In the longer term, if you withdraw state protection then there will be ever greater reliance on the groupings that emerge in that vacuum."
In a chip shop in Hackney, in an area associated with one of the capital's most notorious gangs, the London Fields Boys, the need to belong and be protected is clear.
Two young men – supposedly banned from seeing each other after being arrested the previous day for failing to stop at a police stop and search – greeted each other with the phrase "Alrigh' Fam".
The theme of family – another term often used is "cuz", short for cousin – is strong for many young men who identify with this type of life.
"It ain't a gang, it's a family," said one. "Some people, yeah they sell drugs and kill people, but it ain't all like that."
Another explained that he can't leave his "ends", the area where he grew up. "I feel safe in my areas. But if I go out, I go on my bike, I don't like walking."
He is not talking about going into central London, but just to the other side of the borough, or even a few streets away.
"You can't go nowhere, you might get hurt," he said. "This is Hackney, no one likes no one, everyone thinks they are better."
Very few young people are involved in gangs – according to the Centre for Social Justice's report Dying to Belong only 6% of young people up to 19 say they belong to a gang.
But the growth of this kind of normalised violence in some areas makes people, including David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, call the cuts to youth services a "big, big mistake".
Combined with the rise in university fees and a cut to the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) grant, which encouraged disadvantaged young people to stay in higher education, the effect would be devastating, said Lammy.
"I'm worried that the sort of scenes we will see in inner-city communities across the country will now be on a par with the sorts of scenes we see in America."http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jul/2 ... lubs-close