Billy Cox was due to start a course on Thursday, with hopes of a new beginning. Then last week he was shot dead at his south London home in a suspected gang-related attack. He became the third teenage victim of growing gang violence in the capital within the past fortnight. His death, while sad, was “not a shock to us,” says Chris Murray, operations manager at Fairbridge, a UK-wide charity. “It happens. Everywhere you look there are yellow boards. The other day I saw one about a grenade that had been found,” he adds.
Cox had signed up to do a 10-day course at a centre in Kennington, one of three centres in London, designed to help young people develop social skills, problem-solving techniques and tolerance of others. He was one of an increasing number of young people referred to the charity who are involved in gangs.
“A lot of young people who come to us want to get away from what they know but they don’t know how,” says Murray. “They have no fear. Life is cheap because they have nothing to lose,” he adds. For 14 years or more they have experienced nothing but negativity. We try to change that over a number of weeks building up positive affirmation.”
Competing with the negative influences in a young person’s community is not easy. “In a lot of these communities there is a hierarchy and all these young people want to be top-dog. Everyone is fighting for a position on the estate and a sense of belonging.”
Parents in many cases can be partly to blame but not always. “We have parents coming to us crying because they don’t know what to do to help their children but of course there are those who don’t care at all. But if they are worried, what can they do?”
Solutions are not easy to come by, even for professionals who deal with the same types of problems again and again. But Murray says the government and the public often have unrealistic expectations of how quickly a young person can address their difficulties. It is not unusual for a young person to sabotage their future because they are frightened of succeeding, he adds.
Cox was one of those people. He had spent two days at the centre earlier this year before dropping out. For him, as for others, Fairbridge’s door remained open. He had made the decision to go back.