Volume 18 Number 4
Reaching the Kids Who Fall Through the Net
01 August 2005

As youth crime grabs the headlines in the UK, Decio Emanuel Do Nascimento visits two organizations on the front line in Tower Hamlets, London.

In the run-up to the British elections this spring, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced proposals to combat teenage violence and anti-social behaviour. These included an attempt to shame and discourage young offenders by requiring teenagers carrying out community service orders to wear a uniform. Many youth workers are sceptical about its prospects of success.

For those working on the front line in Britain’s cities, the watchwords are ‘communication, communication and more communication’. I visited two community centres in the London borough of Tower Hamlets to find out more about how they work with young people.

Tower Hamlets is home to cultures, flavours and scents from around the world. A by-word for poverty in the 19th century, the area still has double the national rate of unemployment. Yet it is also the site of the Canary Wharf business district, which employs 63,000 people.

Over the last 15 years, the Cedar Centre in the Isle of Dogs has become a focal point for many families who have been by-passed by the area’s new prosperity. ‘What the kids need is not more youth clubs where they play pool or places to hang about, but more constructive activities,’ says its organizer, Helen Menezes. The Centre offers language classes, job hunting assistance, a play group, computer training and different sports and creative activities. Its workers also provide counselling, advice and referrals. About 100 people go through the Centre every day.

What makes the Cedar Centre stand out, however, is their stress on providing a space for children and parents to engage with each other. Through doing activities together, they can begin to solve some of their personal problems.

The Centre has a firm code of behaviour: only those who respect other people, and themselves, are allowed in. ‘In school the staff are not allowed to tell the kids to leave,’ says Menezes. ‘They have to tolerate them no matter what their behaviour. Children see how far they can go without getting into trouble.’ The Centre’s workers are guided by the principle that ‘rewarding good behaviour is better than punishing bad’.

While the Cedar Centre works with those who come to their premises in search of assistance, Docklands Outreach goes out to find those who may never have looked for help. Its team of ‘detached street-workers’ concentrate on ‘the kids who fall through the net of information and services’, says Runa Khalique, manager of one of their four sites.
Founded in 1997 with a team of only five, the project has grown to 25 professionals and four volunteers. The street-workers plug a gap left by other community centres in the borough. ‘Contrary to most social workers, they actually go out there to the places where kids hang about and try and talk to them,’ says Runa Khalique.

As well as pointing young people in the right direction, the street-workers address specific problems on estates—conflicts, drug-dealing and anti-social behaviour. Docklands Outreach also does preventative work with the siblings of young people already in difficulties. It also runs a family programme, which includes advocacy and mental health support.

Both the Cedar Centre and Docklands Outreach offer an amazing combination of trust, dialogue, respect and self-esteem building. Their role is summed up by Khalique: ‘All we do is arm young people with knowledge—Take responsibility! Be aware! Think about the consequences!’

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