On Their Territory: Detached youth work

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Detached youth workers can reach young people at the margins of society, yet their role is all too often overlooked. Tom de Castella spends an evening with a detached project in Camden to look at the role they can play.

It's a warm August night on the streets of Camden and many of the north London borough's young people are looking for something to do. The summer holidays are dragging on. "There's nothing going on," is a common refrain. I am out and about with the Camden Detached Project, one of the country's best supported detached youth service schemes.The young people we meet are not the traditional recipients of youth work. Ask them about why they aren't down at the youth centre and you'll be met with a shrug or something more direct: "Hardly any of us have been to youth clubs. Why would we bother?" says Abdul, 19. As for the local advisory service Connexions, the view is even more critical: "They are the biggest waste of time. You go in there with an idea for a job and they listen and then tell you to do something totally different."But the tone changes when you ask the young people about detached youth workers. For young people like this - who for reasons of shyness, suspicion or taste - dislike the idea of attending a youth centre, meeting with a detached worker is easier and less institutional. Mumim, 18, says he recently enjoyed a grafitti art project in which they created a mural of themselves with the help of an artist. Others cite Compulsory Basic Training (CBT) for motorbikes, go-karting and a first aid course.The entire group is male - it is a young men's group - and of Bengali origin, but the young people would be happy for anyone to come. Their open, friendly manner is a million miles from the media stereotype of teenage gangs. Crucial to all of this is Wayne Coley, their detached worker, who is the only adult that some of them trust. "This group of young people have never accessed any Camden Council services," says Coley. "We approached them in the street and got to know them on their terms."It's not always easy winning young people over, he says: "You start with a small amount of contact. You speak to them about their concerns and try to work out a programme that fits their needs. It can be quite challenging at times, but part of the fun is trying to break down that barrier".But he admits you can't reach everyone: "There are young people who have their own agenda and won't talk to us and that's fine."The common use of antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos), dispersal zones and, in particular, curfews, can make life difficult but it's something the project just has to work around. Another fact of life for detached workers is that they are regularly mixed up with neighbourhood wardens so it's important to clearly identify themselves to young people who haven't seen them before.Relationship buildingOver the course of an evening, visiting three different patches, I don't see any antisocial behaviour. It's true that in two of the areas, I don't see many young people at all - most of them seem to be away on holiday. And sometimes it's hard to see what the project is all about. Are the workers just chewing the fat with the young people or is there more to it than that? On an estate in Highgate the young people are angry that the Ingestre youth club, just a stone's throw away, has closed down. It's now up to the detached workers to pick up the pieces.Sacha Kaufman co-ordinates the Camden Detached Project with her own brand of laid-back efficiency. "The philosophy of detached work for me is bringing structure into a very chaotic place," she says. "The buzz comes from building up a relationship with young people from nothing and bringing on younger workers."The project has been running for more than 10 years. It works in seven geographical areas in the borough, across nine wards, providing 17 sessions a week - at least two in each area, including work specifically with young women and young men, as well as lunchtime sessions around schools. There are three full-time workers and seven part-timers who work 67 hours between them. At the moment there are another 40 hours fixed term for specific projects.Crucially, and unlike many other local authorities, Camden Council provides core funding for the detached project - 150,000 for staff wages and 6,000 for office, transport and other costs. All the workers have been trained and 80 per cent have a qualification in youth work. Everyone is paid at senior youth worker rate because out on the street (where they work in pairs) they are expected to take the initiative rather than refer matters to a line manager, as would happen in a youth club.The project is subject to national targets. Over the last year, it met 4,000 young people on the streets, encouraging 700 to participate in specific programmes such as drug and alcohol work. There were 150 recorded outcomes, such as when someone having attended a workshop then went on to get a job, and 35 young people getting accreditation - an external qualification such as a first aid course. The target group is aged between 11 and 25 and relates to people who do not use council services, people on the verge of criminality or antisocial behaviour and those in specific areas of the borough.So has the project had any impact on antisocial behaviour? It's hard to draw direct conclusions, but Tony Brooks, head of community safety at Camden Council, says the detached project has helped to calm flashpoints down. "There was a murder in Inverness Street and a large group of Somali young men were engaged in antisocial behaviour around there. Sacha's team took on outreach and that was successful."On our side we gave Asbos to 10 young people, but it was a much bigger gang and the detached team were able to follow up and engage them. We respected their different ways of working and didn't stand them next to a police officer."Striking a balanceOne of the project's success stories is Abdi Arshe, a young man from the Somali community. Two years ago when tensions were running high in the area and the local paper was talking of a "lost generation of Somali youth", he contacted the detached project to get involved and start something positive.Sacha and her team supported Arshe and his group to fund a community event for 200 people last April, which ended up being broadcast on Somali television. "They are not a typical detached project and were very approachable," he says. "There are a lot of young people in the Somali community and it was unique that provision was brought to us and we were encouraged to do something positive." Now he is working for the project as a detached youth worker on a fixed-term contract.But with Gordon Brown talking about providing a youth centre in every community as part of the 10-year youth strategy, many fear the contribution of detached workers might be ignored. Kaufman believes a balanced approach is necessary: "Even if you have good buildings you still need good relationships. We complement good buildings. And people in high places know that detached youth projects work."RECONNECTING DETACHED YOUTH WORKGraeme Tiffany is a detached youth work purist. The vice-chair of the Federation for Detached Youth Work worries that his vocation is becoming mixed up with other practices including mobile work, street-based work and outreach, which are a corruption of pure detached youth work."We've now got many detached workers sitting in vans. If you park up a bus people have to come to you, it misses the point. Young people who don't want to come to a youth centre are probably not going to come to a bus," he says.Outreach is about running prescriptive programmes, and street-based work is too narrow a setting - real detached work can happen in any public space, such as a cafe, library or even someone's house, he says.So now Tiffany has written a trenchant and detailed defence of the vocation he loves. Reconnecting Detached Youth Work goes back to first principles, setting out what makes detached work different and issues guidelines for how it should be conducted."Detached youth work is the last form of democratic engagement with young people," he says. The essence of the job for him is that you meet the young person on his or her territory and rather than imposing a preconceived programme on them, you talk about their needs, negotiate, and decide what to do together.Real detached work is increasingly hard to find, he believes. Government targets are encouraging workers to engage the young people who are easiest to reach rather than those who would benefit most. Equally, the respect agenda is leading councils to send detached workers in to address outbreaks of antisocial behaviour. Youth services need to give detached workers the freedom to work on building relationships with young people long term, he argues.Equally, there should be a good balance of trained workers and enthusiastic part-timers. Camden is a good example of how to run detached youth work because the project receives core council funding, says Tiffany.- Reconnecting Detached Youth Work is published on 24 September. For a copy, call the Federation for Detached Youth Work on 0116 242 7490.

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