by Junior Smart

Junior Smart, Founder of St Giles Trust’s SOS Project which supports young people to exit gangs and serious youth violence, explains how young people become trapped in gangs and what can be done to support them.

Barely a week goes by in the capital without the distressing news of a stabbing or shooting. Behind the headlines, real lives are affected – mothers grieving for lost sons, girlfriends robbed of future partners, children left without their young father.  And there is a complex web of reasons as to why another often innocent young person has become yet another tragic statistic.

Gangs and serious youth violence thrive when there are no strong motivations in alternative directions.  A young person growing up in a deprived community with no advantages and opportunities will often then try to make their own.  And it is this vacuum that those at the top of gangs – the elders – seek to exploit.

Fear and manipulation pervade gangs and are central to the way they thrive.   It starts through persuading a vulnerable, isolated young man with no positive male role model in his life that he can make get cash and girls through carrying drugs and weapons for the top man on the estate.  Once he’s done a few runs, suck him in further with offers of promotion through the gang ‘ranks’ if he takes bigger risks.  Tell him you love him and that if he loves you back he’ll go even further.  Then threaten him and his family if he tries to break free.

A recent evaluation into St Giles Trust’s SOS Project analysed the practical, behavioural and emotional needs of a sample of young clients who were all caught up in gang crime.

Alongside practical issues such as housing, employment and finances were insights into their emotional and behavioural state.  54.4% showed signs of having suffered emotional and sexual abuse, 37% showed signs of stress and instability, 16.8% showed psychological problems and 14% reported self harm and suicidal thoughts.

This is a classic chicken and egg scenario – was a vulnerable young person already suffering from abuse and trauma deliberately targeted by a gang or did their abusive experiences in gang life cause these needs?  In truth, it is probably a mix of both.   However, such needs make the young people extremely distrustful of statutory services, reluctant to engage with support and unable to cry for help.

This is where we firmly believe SOS’s approach of using professionally trained, reformed ex-offenders who have direct experience of the issues the young people are facing is so crucial.  They have the power to reach the most heavily disengaged, needy, chaotic young people that are probably causing the most damage to others, their communities and themselves.  Because they have been in the same boat, they know how to reach out and handhold them out of this destructive cycle.

The same evaluation asked the clients what they thought had helped them.  87% felt that the SOS Project had changed their attitude to offending and 73% said that they felt it was important that their caseworkers were ex-offenders, because they could relate to them and felt inspired to change.

In essence, SOS creates a positive ripple effect to tackle the negative ripple created by gang crime.  By turning it on its head, we can change the hearts and minds of a few young people which will impact well beyond those individuals.  The means safer communities, less young lives destroyed by gangs and fewer future victims caught up in their often deadly vortex.

The SOS project and others are included as examples of good practice in Centre for Mental Health’s new briefing paper on Young adults in transition.