Ministers have recently spoken fine words about supporting charities that work with young people on the margins of society, but anecdotal evidence suggests such organisations feel neglected and underfunded. Cathy Dean reports.
This year has seen a growing recognition by ministers that the voluntary sector is capable of reaching the parts of society that other agencies cannot reach. Prime Minister Tony Blair emphasised the point at the Three Sector Summit in July, and the new social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong has also joined in.
In an interview on Radio 4, Armstrong stressed that the Government wanted to work with charities on the ground - especially those that lead young people away from crime and violence by providing crucial support at critical times.
She recognised that charities should be supported because they have the contacts, trust and skills for steady, long-term intervention with vulnerable young people. "It's the right thing to do," she said. "If we don't do it, we all end up paying the price."
But how do such fine sentiments play out in practice? The evidence at local level suggests that many charities working with young people on the margins of society do not feel supported by government policies. We spoke to two such charities, one in Sheffield and one in north London, and both told of chronic insecurity of funding, especially when dealing with local authorities. They spoke of moving targets and an ever-changing funding landscape.
Wybourn Youth Trust
Established in 1995, WYT is a small charity based on a deprived estate in Sheffield. There are 22 part-time staff, who come from the local area, currently working with 350 young people. The estate demonstrates all the problems associated with poverty. Well-paid jobs in the steel industry have gone, to be replaced by unemployment, crime, fear of crime, low educational achievement and low aspirations. For young people in the leafier suburbs of Sheffield, summer may mean a choice between Morocco or Cornwall, but those on Wybourn, many of whom are young parents, enjoy few such opportunities.
Despite these difficulties, WYT has helped hundreds of young people turn their lives around through practical, educational and therapeutic support. In the spirit of Every Child Matters, the programme includes parenting classes, help with housing and family problems, getting jobs and training, health sessions, cooking on a budget, making a video, craft workshops, kick boxing, keep fit, music, fishing, dance and sports. Young people are encouraged to take charge of their lives and to think before they act, an essential skill for avoiding crime - including knife crime (see box).
According to Kay Allison, a youth worker, young men are willing to admit they carry knives, whereas the girls carry them but are less likely to say so. Both groups, however, say it's for their own protection. Allison describes the WYT approach as building relationships with young people to encourage them to hand in their knives and to develop an atmosphere in which it is not considered cool to carry one. The trust has also developed activities to appeal to young people who may otherwise be sucked into the culture of crime.
Despite its excellent record, WYT is on a funding rollercoaster, always trying to find the money needed to carry out its work and meet the changing criteria of charitable trusts, lottery and government funding. For example, a grant originally awarded by the local development trust is now managed by Sheffield City Council. This meant the targets were changed halfway through the contracting period. No other funder has worked this way. The new focus is on training and employment, ignoring the needs of young people who are in no position to get jobs, but who could have positive futures if helped at a crucial time.
A recent change in police procedure has also had a negative effect on the trust's work. In the past, a staff member would take a young person to the police station to own up to wrongdoing and so help keep youngsters out of prison. Now the police say they will wait until a crime has been committed and then arrest miscreants. The suspicion is that this is to meet arrest targets.
The constant uncertainty over funding inevitably affects forward planning.
Grants from the public sector have been generous but difficult to manage, with WYT not knowing in March one year if money would be available to pay staff in April.
This alone makes Shelly Davis, manager of the group, wary of reliance on this source of funding. What's more, as a part-timer she has to focus on the most pressing concerns. "Meetings with the public sector are always on their terms," she says. "They're always held on their territory and often at short notice. We're always expected to work to their timetable and agenda. Some of the meetings can be miles away, and we're expected to meet the travel costs. Charitable trusts are not like that; they never expect us to down tools and to go to them. They may come and visit us, which is great, and one trust asked us to go to a celebration, but it paid our expenses."
Another difficulty is that policy makers do not always understand the nature of youth work and its considerable, time-consuming engagement with young people. It's hard to remedy this through publicity and information because the work often demands confidentiality and sensitive handling.
Friends United Network (Fun)
Fun addresses early intervention through long-term, one-to-one befriending and mentoring of vulnerable children (aged between five and 21) in Camden and Islington by giving them a trained, screened and supervised adult 'Fun Friend', to be there for them through childhood and beyond. The aim is to prevent young lives derailing by increasing self-confidence, widening horizons and helping to fulfil potential.
Fun has plenty of independent research to prove that it is helping hundreds of young people in a very cost-effective way. But it has still struggled to survive. Its money comes mainly from trusts, plus a small contribution from the public sector, the lottery, events and individuals. Fun has had its share of financial crises, especially when its children's fund grant was unexpectedly cut, but is now on a more secure footing. However, this comes at the cost of Francesca Weinberg, chief executive of Fun, devoting up to 60 per cent of her time to fundraising. "This inevitably reduces the time available to manage and develop the work that we really want to do," she says. "Partnership working in particular means I have to put aside a day for a meeting that may lead to absolutely nothing, but is nevertheles one I feel I should attend in case there is a major change in funding or policy - such as the common assessment framework, for example."
Like Davis, she works part-time and can't really afford to waste a minute.
"As ours is a long-established project, I have willingly spent hours helping similar organisations that are just starting," she says. "In effect, I provide a free consultancy because I know these new groups are very vulnerable.
I want to help, but it takes my time away from improving our service and I often feel I should be paid for it.
"What we want from government is consistency and reliability in its funding and an acknowledgment that we're not here to be picked up and dropped as its agenda changes. We were established to meet a profound need and we have been very successful. Government needs to spread funding widely to support tried and tested initiatives as well as innovative ones. Otherwise, much-needed projects will disappear."
Fun has recently started a similar project in the Manchester area. A feasibility study revealed a profound local need, with many vulnerable children requiring long-term support. Fun will use early intervention to prevent youth offending and school exclusion, and to build emotional resilience. The major stumbling block has been money. The area chosen for the project, Hulme and Moss Side, has received substantial public money in recent years, but now the money is spent without replacement.
Fortunately, a charitable trust stepped in to fund a start, but Polly Blackley, who is developing the scheme, says "long-term work with young people will inevitably mean a never-ending struggle to garner funds and sustain support".
The Audit Commission estimates that every £42,000 spent on effective early interventions from birth to adolescence saves £153,000 in incarceration costs. If the words of Hilary Armstrong can be translated into support for small charities, then we could all reap the rewards of their efforts.
BEATING KNIFE CRIME WITH MUSIC
In May, Kiyan Prince, a promising young footballer, was stabbed to death outside his school in London - another victim of the knife-carrying culture among Britain's young people. The long-term trend for death by stabbing is stable, but a recent study at King's College London reported a jump in knife-related robberies and assaults.
One of the projects set up by Wybourn Youth Trust in Sheffield attempts to help people avoid getting involved in violent crime. The aim was to attract young men to work on the creation of music that is not violent or negative (see Knife Rap, below). Course members have gained a Pop Idol-style reputation in the area.
Young people turn to WYT staff when they are in trouble with the law - they are supported in practical ways, because a spell in prison can ruin their job chances and reinforce criminal activity. None of WYT's youth workers believe longer sentences for knife crime would help.