Young people need sense of belonging or we’ll never solve knife crime crisis

As police cuts are blamed, YMCA's Denise Hatton says the picture is far more complex

I do not think that knife crime can be attributed to an individual cause. It is a very complex issue but I am certain that youth work has a significant role to play in helping young people who are choosing to carry knives and those that are contemplating it.

I have had 30+ years of seeing young people supported to thrive in their lives, including those that may have been in gangs who are now leading smaller charities that are trying to show young people a way out. That was what youth work achieved.

YMCA England & Wales carried out research last year which tracked cuts in public spending on youth services. It showed that between 2010-11 and 2016-17 in England and Wales there was a reduction of £750 million in annual spending. In real terms across England and Wales that is a 65 per cent reduction – that is absolutely huge.

We have felt those cuts in our work with young people

As an organisation we have felt those cuts in our work with young people, particularly through detached youth work. While we have wonderful youth centres where young people are able to go and get a sense of community and personal development, a lot of youth work used to take place finding young people out on the streets, and sadly there is no funding around for that any more.

Youth workers I have worked with over the years encountered young people at parks, or outside McDonalds, or sitting on estates causing havoc, and let them know there are places they could come and be welcomed.

We felt that youth work as a concept was slipping away from us. That is why we decided to do the research. We found that increasingly for people coming to work at YMCA, youth work was not in their vocabulary, that it was something historic. We felt that there used to be a time when youth work was known as a career, but actually now very few people think that they have the ability themselves to work in that field. This needs to change so we can help more young people.

People who are in non-working households, where generationally there has been no one working in their home – these are the young people who are the hardest to reach. Being able to connect with them and let them see there are other ways of living your life, rather than seeing themselves as being apart from society. That’s what youth work was good at, it engaged these types of young people in ways which their school or family were unable to.

It’s about building communities, not just about ring-fencing money for youth services

Most young people who are going through a very difficult journey in life – some of which ends in the extremes we are seeing in the news just now – a lot is because of a breakdown in their relationships at home, with peers, and in the community. Youth work can help build that trust and relationships with an adult which can map out a future and help young people explore their community for themselves, for personal growth. It’s not just someone telling you not to do something. We are working with young people, who are potentially the most vulnerable young people, to provide opportunity for personal growth that most others have in their own homes.

It’s about building communities, not just about ring-fencing money for youth services; it’s about bringing back to life those wonderful community centres that are around that nobody’s using, and supporting organisations or local communities to deliver on that, to bring back into commission buildings lying dormant now. Spaces and services are both important.

Young people need a place to go where they can belong, contribute and thrive that’s not just on the streets and in the parks. They need somewhere that can be a place where young people have an opportunity to come together outside school. There are very few places that young people can go to meet peers and get personal growth. If they fall into the wrong group they are likely to stay there, because there’s nobody that’s going to help them pull themselves out.

Previously, if there were youth clubs and you fall out with your parents, you could talk to a youth worker and they could help with that relationship. If there are no trusted adult relationships outside of parenting, that’s when young people just go to their peers. And for some of them that leads to gangs. Lots of these young people that are either on the streets or not engaged in fuller community, it is because there’s potentially relationship breakdowns within their environment. So they get drawn into somewhere else where they find a sense of belonging.

If we are serious about tackling this issue we have to get to the bottom of why it is taking place. What would be interesting to compare is whether the areas that have seen the highest rise in knife crime are also the ones that have faced the biggest cuts in youth service spend. Currently, it is difficult to say categorically that the reduction in youth services has directly caused a rise in knife crime, however what is clear, is that the services, spaces and trusted adults that were around a decade ago to support those most at risk in our communities are no longer there. 

Denise Hatton is Chief Executive of YMCA England & Wales.