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Is the Church failing to tackle London’s violent crime epidemic?

As two more young people were killed in London on the same night, Ben Lindsay speaks out about what the Church should be doing to stop the rising tide of violence.

Another day, another young person is the victim of youth violence.

For the first time in modern history, the murder rate in London is higher than in New York City. Eight Londoners were murdered between 14th and 20th March and the total number of London murders, even excluding victims of terrorism, has risen by 38% since 2014.

This morning the UK woke up to yet another young life lost. This time it’s a 17-year-old girl who was fatally shot in Tottenham, North London last night. She became London’s 47th victim this year. 

Having worked in the field of youth violence for 17 years, I’ve seen what happens next all too often. The government, the police, community leaders and key decision makers make grand statements about what is being achieved and start blaming the media, government cuts, lack of resources, parents, youth culture and previous governments for what’s not being accomplished. Meanwhile young people are continuing to perish at an alarming rate. 

You’ll hear so-called experts use phases like “we need youth violence to be seen as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue". The public will be given the latest gangs and youth violence model/approach, usually from America, that promises to deliver answers. Research papers will be produced, youth violence commissions will be set up, there will be protesting on the street and people will make grand statements on social media. Rinse and repeat.

At the end of the day nothing changes and the murder rate continues to rise among our young people.

The problem

I believe that youth violence can be reduced if the UK government and local authorities in particular do the simple things well.

Any youth worker will tell you that in the holiday period there is a spike in youth violence.

Two years ago to the day, 17-year-old Myron Yarde was killed in New Cross, South East London. It happened in the Easter holidays. A few months later, Myron’s best friend 16-year-old Leonardo Osemeke, also known by his stage name Showkey, was killed in the summer holidays in Peckham, South East London. 

I have been in many central government and local authority meetings where I have asked for a clear strategy for the holiday period for young people. I have never received a clear answer and I’ve never seen a clear strategy produced from any London authority for the holiday period.

Since the austerity cuts in 2011, youth clubs have closed and front line services have been eradicated. According to research by Unison, freedom of information requests from 168 local authorities across the UK shows that youth services lost at least £60m of funding between 2012 and 2014. More than 2000 jobs were lost. Around 350 youth centres closed and 41,000 youth service places for young people and at least 35,000 hours of outreach work by youth workers were cut. I believe this is part of the reason why youth violence has increased over the past few years. 

The answer

Firstly, there needs to be an increased police presence in crime hot spots. This is a simple mapping exercise that any police analyst could do. Research supports the theory that more visible police will result in less crime and should in some cases create a safer environment. 

Secondly, local authorities should have service agreements with the best local youth organisations and charities to be made available in the holiday periods. As a result, they would become the first response and the first to engage the youth on the streets. If the youth workers are trained properly and have built good relationships then they will be in the best position to defuse any issues before they become fatal. This list of the best local youth organisations should also be made public to parents and carers so they can access support during the holiday period. 

Thirdly, central and local government need to have a better relationship with faith groups. Youth clubs have been closing at an alarming rate. Could faith groups be part of the solution? Recent research shows that there are 5.1 million people in the UK who would consider themselves members of churches. There are 50,000 registered churches and 40,000 of those churches have their own building. If the UK government made more of an effort to connect with faith groups they would find a willing volunteer service with buildings, which are usually empty during the week. This combination of buildings, volunteers and resources could go in some way to helping reduce youth violence. Training is of the upmost importance and is one of the reasons why I’m launching a charity called Power The Fight later this year to specifically equip faith and community groups in being part of the solution to the youth violence issue in the UK.

It’s a two-way relationship. Pastors and leaders of churches also need to step up and let people know that churches can play a major part in helping to reduce youth violence. If not, churches in the UK risk fulfilling the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr when he said: “The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

There are examples where this isn’t the case. Churches like SPACNATION appear to be engaging young people at an incredible rate with criminal pasts. Another example is the Oasis network, who have set up schools across the country in inner city areas. Clearly some church movements are using their resources to be part of the solution to the youth violence issue. But more needs to be done. If not the situation will only become bleaker, and the government and institutions like churches will have blood on their hands and will have no one to blame but themselves.

Originally published for Premier Christianity

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