SOS Founder Junior Smart reflects on what the solutions are to tackling the growing levels of serious violence affecting communities across the UK.
The tragic deaths of 15-year old Zain Aimable-Lina and 16-year old Ionut Elvis Tacu on New Year’s Eve represent a grim milestone for 2021. 30 young lives were taken through teenage homicides last year, surpassing the record high witnessed in 2008. While many of us were celebrating the start of 2022, the families of these young men and the many others taken last year were trying to come to terms with the insurmountable grief the loss of a child presents.
As St Giles celebrates its 60th year, demand for the SOS Project continues to grow as more young people become trapped in the cycle of serious youth violence and criminal exploitation. Our experience tells us there are no quick fix solutions and that no one single organisation has the whole answer. We also know that addressing underlying causes is key. This often means working more widely with the young person’s family, their local community and with those who hold power and influence – be they a politician in Whitehall or a rapper on YouTube.
At the time of the first lockdown, we were concerned that the apparent slowdown in serious youth violence would dramatically reverse once restrictions eased. Sure enough, when they were we saw a rapid spike as criminal networks tried to reassert themselves and the most vulnerable young people who had disappeared off the radar during lockdown were exploited further.
As former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield warned last year, as many as 120,000 children became at risk of being ‘lost’ from the system due to closures of schools and other services during the lockdown. Unseen, unheard and frequently unsupported, these children were at greater risk of falling prey to predatory influences.
It is vital that we find these children and provide them with the care and support they deserve. The teams at St Giles are currently working flat out to support these unseen victims. Our staff, many of whom have lived experience and have been there themselves, really understand what is going on and can reach vulnerable children and young people in a way where many others might struggle to do.
It’s not just the young people, we are also supporting their families. Many of these families are really struggling to make ends meet which can put added pressure on the children to go out and get sucked into criminality as a way of simply ensuring the family know where their next meal is coming from. Many of our clients have seen a drop in their weekly income of around 20-25% due to Universal Credit cuts and this is at a time when the costs of essentials is rocketing. St Giles services such as The Pantry network, offering fresh, healthy, affordable food, have enabled our clients and their families to stay healthy and nourished through some very tough times.
We also know that young people are facing very hard challenges as we emerge from the pandemic. Many of the industries that typically employ young people have been hardest hit and, despite reports of a buoyant employment landscape for some, it is hard for young people who have added barriers around homelessness, family breakdown or care leaving to access these opportunities. Our caseworkers are trying to connect excluded young people up with them. However, this is going to take time as many of the young people need a lot of support around building their levels of confidence and self-belief before they are ready for the job market.
We will only tackle serious youth violence if we tackle the root causes at its heart. This means all of us need a long-term commitment towards helping young people and the communities they live in realise the opportunities they deserve. At St Giles, we have a solution through our network of services provided by professionally trained caseworkers who have lived experience of the issues facing their clients. However, we cannot make changes in isolation nor are quick fixes going to bring about a sustainable solution.
Let’s make tackling serious youth violence a new year’s resolution for 2022. And let’s keep it high up on our radar for the years beyond.