Proceeds of crime divert youngsters from crime

7th August 2009 at 01:00
CashBack for Communities award transforms a run-down tenement block into a youth centre

For many young people in Glasgow's east end, street gangs and fighting were about the only things available to them after school, during holidays and the weekends. But a CashBack for Communities award has seen a run-down tenement block transformed into a youth centre, where facilities for playing games and laying down music tracks have now made it the place to hang out.

As justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill hits the little white ball into the net for the final time, he confesses something that is by this time obvious to every onlooker. "Table tennis isn't my game. I'm more of a football man."

But for opponent Natalie Kelly, 13, table tennis is one of the main attractions of the club run by Dalmarnock Youth Project, which she attends as often as she can during term-time and in the holidays: "I like playing t-t and pool. I first heard about the club years ago from a poster. It's not just games. If you've a problem, you can talk to somebody about it."

For project leader Jamie Lumsden, the biggest problem today is showing Mr MacAskill around the youth club - which the Scottish Government's CashBack for Communities fund awarded pound;35,000 - only three weeks after being put in charge. "I'm a bit nervous," he admits.

You'd never guess it from the assured way he chats to Mr MacAskill. This would be easy enough one-to-one, but the small room on the ground-floor of the three-storey converted block of flats is heaving with youth workers, government aides and media types with microphones.

"Most of our staff are from this area," Mr Lumsden tells the minister. "Around half have progressed from being members of the club to volunteers, then youth workers themselves. They provide a safe environment where young people can use their time productively and in a way that's good for the community."

Ants - "It's short for Anthony" - Dearie, 15, is in no doubt about the beneficial effects of the club on the community: "I come here for something to do other than fighting. If we weren't in here in summer, we'd be outside fighting gangs in the streets."

Surprisingly, perhaps, for a community a stone's throw from Celtic Park, sectarian differences and football are not the main triggers for fighting, says Mr Lumsden. "That's greatly exaggerated. We have Catholics and Protestants, Celtic and Rangers supporters coming to the club, and it doesn't cause problems.

"Gang fights are about territory, not religion, and there aren't as many now as there used to be. I've seen a change in young people's attitudes in the nine years I've worked in this part of Glasgow. East End-wide projects, such as ours, make young people more comfortable moving between areas.

"Then there's the declining population. That means schools take pupils from a wider area now, so they're more used to mixing. We try to build on relationships they have at their school with young people from other areas."

Gangs haven't been eradicated, he says. "It would be wrong to minimise the problem. There is still the gang influence and mentality. But we are making progress."

Providing alternatives to what is often recreational violence is a first step. But youth workers do more than that, says Mr Lumsden. "Diversion is only part of the solution. A lot of the problems associated with young people - substance abuse, violence, sexually-transmitted disease - are traced to a lack of self-worth.

"Diversion alleviates problems immediately. But we also aim to make a lasting difference by helping young people to see what they can achieve, and by showing them the options out there. We want them to feel confident in themselves and in their choices. That is even more important than providing activities to keep them occupied."

Combining both is the ideal, says Ian Ellis, who combines being a PE teacher at Paisley Grammar with working twice a week at the youth club - where he shares his enthusiasm for making and mixing music. "We have one young guy who got up with the mike in his hand and started rapping," he says. "Blew us away. Listen."

He selects a file on the computer connected to the mixing deck and unmistakable hip-hop fills the first-floor recording studio:

"I think I lost the beat,

I don't know how,

Let's party from the street.

Put your hands in the air,

Never mind your feet,

This is how you do it with the disco beat!"

"Lee is 12 and he's making that up as he goes along," Mr Ellis says. "Phenomenal, isn't it?"

The well-equipped recording studio and music room reflect the club's philosophy of listening to youngsters and offering activities which grab their interest, he explains - and of being opportunistic about slipping education into the entertainment. "Attention spans can be short. So sitting them down and talking at them rarely works.

"Take our rapper, for instance. We are working with him to produce a CD and a music video. He likes Eminem, and the song that made him big had a sample in it from the 1970s song by Labi Siffre (London-born poet, songwriter, singer and musician). Now here's the thing. Eminem rapped about homosexuals in a bad way and Siffre was openly gay. So it took them years to get around to talking to each other and agreeing to use Siffre's sample.

"So I was telling Lee about this and we chatted about homophobia. Then he wanted to sample some of Michael Jackson's music and we talked about some of the issues in his life. This is while we're doing the music. It's about getting a balance."

The skill to do so grows with experience, says Mr Lumsden. But it's not one which youth workers ever feel they've completely mastered. "How you work with young people depends on their age. We take them from eight to 25 and we find that separate evenings for three age-groups - junior, intermediate and senior - works well. We also have some boys-only and girls-only sessions, which some of them like."

Gathering youngsters together at the start of each session and giving them a chat works with the under-12s, he says. "We also have a system of awarding stars after each session, and the person with most gets to pick a trip we go on. The numbers we've had to exclude have reached zero since we introduced positive reinforcement of good behaviour.

"The reward wasn't in the stars, it turned out; it was in the attention they got, in the fact that we were praising them. When we realised that, we made a point of not just giving out stars, but taking time to explain what each one was for. We recognise the good things they do and we tell them, so that next time they know what's expected."

Older club members are more sporadic in attendance and less responsive to silver stars, he says. "So the methods have to be different. But the basic philosophy is the same. We've a responsibility to make sure they know how to behave, especially in public. So if we see a young person doing something good, we praise them.

"As they get older, it's less about telling them what to do, more about sitting down and talking with them, getting them to think about the effects of their behaviour. That's often enough. But we do get some young people with complex issues and difficult backgrounds.

"I have hard decisions to make, as leader of the project, about a few young people who detract from the enjoyment of the others but are in greatest need of the support and services we provide."

Being excluded from the club for a time doesn't necessarily mean all contact is lost, however, because Dalmarnock Youth Project is not tied to a specific location, Mr Lumsden explains. "That's where our street workers come in. We spend about 20 staff-hours a week in the local community and beyond, engaging with young people on their own turf."

Unfamiliar adults approaching young people in the street are likely to be met with suspicion, so there are guidelines. "We have to be very clear about who we are and what we're doing. We show our identification badges. Our first line would be something like: `Hi, I'm Jamie from the Dalmarnock Youth Project - and I'm not the police'."

It takes time to build trust anywhere, but the advantage of doing so out in the streets is that wary youngsters don't feel confined, he says. "They can walk away if they want to. Taking that a bit further, I have a theory - based on what I've seen with kids - that a lot of their personal issues cease to be when you get them away from the city.

"You want to run about? That's fine. You feel like shouting loud? Knock yourself out. You want to break stuff? Go break some wood and let's build a fire. All those things that are problems in an urban environment are natural in the countryside. So we take them to the great outdoors as often as we can.

"We go to the seaside. We take them walking in the country parks. We went boat fishing with them recently, which is a real passion of mine. They love getting out there."

All this takes funding and, like most voluntary organisations, Dalmarnock Youth Project needs someone to keep it coming.

"That will be me now," Mr Lumsden tells the Justice Secretary. "We get Fairer Scotland money as part of a consortium with other local youth projects. We get some from local authorities and some from private sources. It can be a struggle to find what's needed to make a difference for young people. So we are grateful for this new funding."

"We're keen to help," Mr MacAskill replies. "We would like to give more but it'll take time to get the money in, then we can get it out again. The majority of kids are good kids. You have to give them a chance."

Crime pays

The Scottish Government's CashBack for Communities scheme is funded from the proceeds of crime. The ill-gotten gains of organised criminals are taken from them and reinvested in communities to make a real difference to the lives of young people.

The money, administered by Youthlink Scotland, goes towards a programme of diversionary activities for young people to increase the opportunities to develop their interests and skills in an enjoyable, fulfilling and supported way.

The initiatives are open to all young people, but resources are focused on areas of high crime. The initiatives address participation and diversion and aim to increase the likelihood of positive long-term outcomes for participants.

To date, the Scottish Government has committed itself to investing over pound;13 million and more than 100,000 young people have benefited.


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