Great Britain

What impact will coronavirus have on youth engagement work?

Members of youth charity Hackney Quest celebrated the group's 30th anniversary at Hackney Town Hall in 2018. Picture: Hackney Quest

Members of youth charity Hackney Quest celebrated the group's 30th anniversary at Hackney Town Hall in 2018. Picture: Hackney Quest

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Youth work is a vital tool used to support teenagers whether they are vulnerable, at risk of going down the wrong path or simply need help with homework.

Ch Supt Raj Kohli. Picture: Lucas CumiskeyCh Supt Raj Kohli. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey

But the coronavirus lockdown means group activities and face-to-face mentoring can no longer take place, leaving agencies having to think of new ways to reach youngsters. The fact that schools are closed only adds to the problems, as it means some youngsters need more support now than ever.

The Gazette has spoken to people from across the sector to find out how they are navigating the unprecedented situation and what they believe the impact could be on serious youth violence.

Hackney Quest has been supporting young people and their families in one of the most deprived areas of London for more than 30 years through mentoring, employability workshops and arts programmes.

Youth worker Luke Billingham says there are concerns about how the lockdown will affect the work, but thankfully the charity has a “massive group of volunteers” and so is able to host mentoring sessions over the phone.

James Cook MBE, left, with members of the Pedro Youth Club's boxing club. Picture: Polly HancockJames Cook MBE, left, with members of the Pedro Youth Club's boxing club. Picture: Polly Hancock

Luke said there has been a varied response from the youngsters to the situation they find themselves in. Some were excited by the school closures, but others will have been “terrified”.

“We’re keeping in touch with all the families, particularly those who are self-isolating or where there is family tension,” he said. “We work with a lot of young people who don’t have a hugely happy life at home. And they may or may not have one at school. We are a third institution that supports them.

“The most vulnerable children are the ones most likely to want to be out of the house.”

Luke said the charity also had a big role to play in communicating with families who maybe have less trust in authority, given the differing levels of information accessed by some.

City Academy Hackney student Ashraf Rashid, 17, has been going to Hackney Quest’s youth club since he was nine.

He told the Gazette he and his friends understand why they need to stay at home, but he finds repeating the same things every day mundane.

“There’s nothing to do,” he said. “A lot of my friends are describing being in quarantine as excruciating. I’m just watching things on YouTube and doing chores around the house. Even chatting to your friends every day just wears you down because you’re just repeating conversations as there’s nothing to talk about.

“Hackney Quest check in on us and it helps me as a young person know they are caring and willing to check up on us. But it’s not the same as how I would feel if I went on a weekday afternoon.”

When it comes to the impact a lack of activities and face-to-face engagement could have on tackling serious youth violence or engaging with those at risk of gang crime, the consensus is that it’s too early to tell.

Last week Hackney’s Det Supt Mike Hamer said violence with injury was down 30pc year on year across Hackney and Tower Hamlets, but that could be for many reasons.

Sgt James Aspland, who leads the youth engagement team at Hackney police, said the impact of the lockdown was not yet known, but said: “The main message has been put across from the school’s officers to young people and there are plans to potentially do group chats online.

“As with all youth work, it is the hard to reach children that will become even harder to reach out to and try and have a positive effect on.

“I am hopeful the impact on these clubs not running is limited, however it will make interesting discussion points with young people when normal service resumes. My team is keen and excited to get back to this work as soon as practicable.”

Hackney’s pioneering cross-agency Integrated Gangs Unit, the model for which has been replicated far and wide, is holding meetings over the phone and the council stressed its work remained a priority.

Meanwhile Islington and Camden’s top cop Ch Supt Raj Kohli believes youngsters who carry knives are “less likely to be bothered about Covid-19 than other people”, and stressed police would not let up when it comes to tackling violent crime.

But he believe young people missing out on vital engagement activities do understand the situation and will not be led astray during the lockdown.

“I don’t sense we are going to get lots of children roaming the streets,” he said. “The challenge is they will be going stir crazy being at home all the time. We as human beings are pack animals, we like to hang about with our mates, and we can’t do that. But as soon as we get through this we will pick up where we left off. We’re not going to lose momentum.”

Former champion boxer James Cook MBE runs Pedro Youth Club in Lower Clapton and has helped keep kids out of trouble for decades and is not worried either.

“The kids here are very sensible and there’s lots of stuff on TV and on the internet they can do,” he said. “I’ve spoken to a few of them and they are doing their stuff. They know what’s going on and know what time of day it is.

“I think coronavirus is keeping them from making more trouble. Everybody is trying to be safe.”

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