The phrases ‘gang violence’ and ‘south London estates’ seem almost synonymous if you look at press coverage of the deaths of 17 young people as a result of gun and knife crime during the first eight months of 2007.
But Anni Stockreiter, the founder of young people’s service South Central Youth, says that while there were incidents on nearby estates, the three estates her service works on in and around Brixton have been free of such violence.
“I believe we are saving lives,” she says. “There’s so much gang violence, but we haven’t seen it on our estates. We talk to the [gang] leaders, we say [to young people] if you don’t feel safe then let us know.”
Stockreiter, who lives in the local area, set up South Central Youth in October 2005 after seeing young people being hurt and killed all around her.
South Central Youth is a gang outreach service for young people which puts youth workers and peer mentors, some of whom are ex-gang members themselves, on to estates. It also provides counselling on demand, a 24-hour free phone helpline, workshops on a range of activities including IT and dance, and day trips such as going quad biking.
The service now has nine staff and has so far helped more than 2,000 young people. The Home Office was the first to fund it, and funding for four peer mentors to do youth work qualifications is currently being provided by British Gas via Save the Children’s Here to Help awards, which aim to inspire young people to make their area a better place to live.
Stockreiter explains that the workers’ time is mainly spent going round estates talking to young people where they hang out, and she sees this as key to their success in engaging with the group. “We work mainly on the street. We have got three [youth] centres, but the kids would still rather meet out and about than at the centres,” she says.
Delroy Thomas, project manager at the service, has grown up in Brixton and has himself spent time in Feltham Young Offender Institution. He sees the project’s success as due to most of its workers being from Lambeth and many having experience of gangs or of being social excluded, enabling them to genuinely empathise with the kids.
“You are not going to get every child to listen to you,” he says. “Our goal is to work with them long term on a long term target. We are talking about two or three years down the line.”
Sharwain, 21, is an ex-gang member, a peer mentor for the project, and a trainee Connexions personal advisor. “I used to be in a gang. I was running around the streets doing what these kids are doing. Because I’ve got an understanding of their situations, most kids won’t tell me to f**k off. And if I can’t talk to them, I will know someone who knows them.”
The power of the workers’ connection with the young people they serve was shown earlier this year when between 30 and 40 kids from two gangs met on an estate in Tulse Hill in a row over a stolen motorbike. “They had weapons and were about to go crazy,” recounts Stockreiter. “On hearing of the trouble, Delroy and another worker went up to the estate and, as a result of knowing about three-quarters of the kids, were able to defuse the situation.”
Adam, 15, lives on one of the estates the service works on. He says he feels he can talk to the workers, and the trips they organise give young poeple an alternative to hanging around on the street.
“This service actually makes you change a little. It helps a lot more than the other ones because it asks you what you want and then you have no excuse for not showing up,” he says.
For Stockreiter, it’s showing young people you value them through thick and thin that counts. “We have to ebb and flow with the community,” she says. “If a crisis happens, we don’t run away.”
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.orgThis article appeared in the 22 November issue under the headline “The word on the street”