Keep 'em off the streets? You must be joking

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Although it's good to be appreciated, I never feel comfortable when I'm praised for "keeping young people off the streets".

And it's not just local residents and parents who say it. Recently, when I met a group of young people to help them with a youth opportunity fund bid and it came to the section where they had to justify their project idea, the old phrase "it'll keep us off the streets" was trotted out again. It's what young people think we adults want to hear.

That's pretty sad. The streets are a public space and young people have a right to be there. It's an issue of democracy and community.

The streets are where most of us played as children and met our friends. As adults, the streets are where we meet our neighbours. The streets can also be a place of protest, a place to show strength.

Most of my work takes place directly on the streets, and never has the aim of getting people indoors. Sure, sometimes we decide to go on trips or do something in a building for a while. But by engaging in bus stop conversations or joining in a kick-about, I may unintentionally keep people on the streets for longer than they had intended.

I'm not pretending the streets are always safe. Traffic is the biggest threat, killing far more young people than gun or knife crime. But there's a contradiction where local authorities promote a "cafe culture" with pedestrian-friendly squares and all-night coffee bars, while sending police out to the same areas to take young people home.

So perhaps we should question this common view. Why should young people stay indoors? Why does their outdoor time need to be organised? Do we prefer them to be sitting in front of a computer game? Have we even moved on from the Victorian view that "children should be seen and not heard"?

Perhaps it is an issue of economics. As adults, we are encouraged to be outdoors if we are spending money at cafes, bars or market stalls. Less profitable street activities such as busking face increasing legislation. Young people have little disposable income and they are tolerated on the streets only for about as long as it takes to eat a bag of chips.

The Federation for Detached Youth Work will explore these issues at its annual conference this month, asking whether "a vibrant, populated street, where people accept a generalised responsibility for the socialisation of each other, is safer, better, a place of real community". I look forward to the debate.

- From the Frontline is written by a London-based detached youth worker

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