The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, as the Chinese say. This week the South London Press throws its weight behind a walk which is that first step on the way to stamping out stabbings on the streets of Lambeth. Youth violence is a disease – across the political spectrum, everyone can agree that. So it makes sense to treat it like one. That is exactly what the authorities in Glasgow have done. They adopted a Public Health Model for tackling street crime in 2005. There was not a single stabbing on the streets of the city last year.
Now Lambeth is doing the same. Here, as we launch our campaign of support, TOBY PORTER talks to three people who are helping steer the campaign into our neighbourhoods and even our homes. Cabinet member Mohammed Seedat has made it council policy, Richard Parkes has overseen the transition to community groups across the borough, Mahamed Hashi tells how a close shave with death made him a crusader against knife crime.
Mahamed Hashi (pictured above) was shot 10 years ago, at the age of 23.
He was hit in the shoulder and the bullet severed a nerve in his left arm. It also shattered a rib and caused his lung to collapse. Half a centimetre over, and it would have cut into his spine. He was told there was a 70 per cent chance he would never use his arm again.
“I’m relaxed about it now but it was hard to laugh at the time when you have been through something so serious,” he said.
These days, he is involved with more than a dozen community safety organisations, as well as being the co-founder of the Brixton Soup Kitchen, which helps the homeless people of Lambeth try to find jobs and a way to get back on their feet.
He is also managing director of New Beginnings Youth Provision, which aims to coax teenagers away from gangs.
He had been stabbed at the age of 15 as well. His primary school had five different headteachers in five years. “It was about survival, not thriving,” he said.
That did not stop him studying biomedical science at London Metropolitan University – he also studied for a masters in forensic science at London South Bank University.
After that, he went into teaching at his old school – which was by then getting ‘outstanding’ Ofsted reports under headteacher Judith Tapper – acting also as a senior pastoral assistant.
“I wanted to help kids who had gone through the same as I did,” he said. “When I was a pupil, we had youth workers who held us to account. They were respected and feared in equal measure. They inspired me to become a youth worker.
One half-term, he saw a group of people arguing. He went to break up the fight. As he crossed the road, he saw someone pop out of an alleyway with a gun.
The next thing, Hashi felt his arm drop. “All I could think was ‘What on earth is going on?’” he recalled. It turned out the gun had been fired. The bullet hit railings and ricocheted into his shoulder. He was in intensive care for three days.
“On the third day, the police tried to get me to point the finger,” he said. “I felt they were trying to take advantage of my being weak from my injuries. “They did not seem to know I am not a gang member.
The doctors sent them away. I did not hear from them again for two years.
The headlines said ‘Youth worker shot after argument with six young people in a chicken shop’. I was worried about my credibility if people believed I had been arguing with anyone. “But the incident was scary because kids could have got shot.
Instead, parents complained to the school that they thought it had employed a gang member – the headlines seemed to imply it was a robbery, a shootout or a drug deal gone wrong. People made assumptions about me even though I had a degree.
“Every time the police saw my car, I was classified as a suspect – including the one where I was shot.
But the headteacher extended my contract and gave me a pay rise, to show how she supported me. That is something I will not forget. “Academics call it a teachable moment – an instant of clarity when you get to see who is who.
“Then Delphine Duff showed me how public employees like the police were held to account – and I joined lots of them.” More than 230 people visited Mr Hashi at King’s College Hospital, where he had an armed guard because police feared someone might try to finish him off.
It was another five years before he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, though. The 34-year-old said: “Until recently, Lambeth had the highest rate of mental health problems and the highest rate of youth violence. But it still took five years to connect those dots.
“You cannot talk about mental health in isolation – it should be part of a package. “You do not understand how much youths are missing until you invest time – which seems to have been lost.”
Mr Hashi will be part of the Lambeth Walk on September 23. “I am not usually a fan of marches,” he said. “You have to tell the police, know the area, get permission. “But this is an announcement of intent.
Everyone is involved in this. It is not just young people – it is the whole community. Police numbers are going down, but their responsibilities are increasing.
Youth workers, psychologists and social workers need to be involved. We call it half-way co-ordination.
We try to find the most suitable organisation for them going forward, because some do not have the capacity to help them.
After I was shot, I was still going into areas where there was knife crime and shootings. My job is to go into an area and engage.
The only solution is for people in the community to be in the seats of power, when policy is decided on. Otherwise, nothing will change,” added Mr Hashi, who was elected a Labour councillor two months ago.
One of the inspirations behind that decision was the late (Dame) Tessa Jowell. “She helped us create the Brixton Soup Kitchen,” he said. “Until then, I thought politicians were only concerned with their position.
She was the first one I ever came across who made me think they were human. I am a community person, not a politician.
We have become so disconnected, we have allowed people to dictate our reality for us. “The walk is about bringing people together.
That is at the heart of the Public Health Model. But specifically, it is about putting young people in the centre and creating a network around them.” -end-
If crime is a disease, why not treat it like one?
That is the simple message from Richard Parkes, managing director of the Young Lambeth Co-op (YLC), whose job it is to implement a new strategy to tackle gang violence in the borough.
“Our job is to support young people and redirect them away from violence or sexual exploitation, which might bring them to harm,” he said.
“Violence is like any disease – there are clusters and then it spreads. It can be transmitted through learning, norms or neurological factors.
It can be spread by environmental factors like poverty, age and lack of education.”
The Lambeth Walk, from Windrush Square to Archbishop Tenison’s School at The Oval on September 23, is a start of the process. “It is a way of reaching out to communities to get them involved,” said Mr Parkes.
“We cannot have a top-down approach – it needs to come from the ground up. “The community has been traumatised. They experience it – they know how we can turn this ship around.”
Lambeth’s target is to create Youth Interrupters who try to change the mindset and behaviour of teenagers involved in crime.
There are also Pathway co-ordinators who work with youth organisations to engage the youngster or gang member in anything from music, to the arts, to bike maintenance – things that might lead to job opportunities.
“We find a suitable youth group which can work with them,” said Mr Parkes.
“At the very least, they will have somewhere to go in the evenings, and someone who can challenge their language and behaviour and help turn their lives around.
If any young person is traumatised by their experience of violence at home or on the streets, we work with them and their youth worker to try to find them mental health counselling.
“Once a rapport is built up with the Pathway co-ordinator, we can retain our links but back away from too much intervention.
“We are building a 10-year strategy to using the Public Health Model approach to tackle youth violence. It won’t happen over night. But we want people actively involved in the decision-making process.
“It needed a commitment from all the statutory and voluntary organisations. Now we have that, we have drawn up our targets – for example, in the first year, there will be intervention in schools.
We want the whole community involved. And we need people who have a passionate interest in helping young people – it could be an ex-gang member or someone with a name in the community.
“Our model is based on the successes achieved in Strathclyde and, before that, the Cure Violence project in Chicago.” Jamaican-born Mr Parkes came to England at the age of 23 and was a youth worker from 1981.
He was head of lifelong learning in Lambeth for two years from 1998, and then for 10 years in Hackney, and has lived in Herne Hill for 23 years.
“My commitment is to changing the lives of young people in this borough,” he said. He runs a monthly youth forum which involves police, social workers and housing officers. He also sits on a board with the council’s chief executive, directors of housing and services for young people and social work, police, the London Fire Brigade and public transport.
“We look at the positive work young people do and use good intelligence to devise ways to keep them safe,” he said. “Not all young people have to be demonised.”
YLC co-ordinates all the voluntary sector bodies in the borough for youth work and play in the borough.
It also commissions other organisations and charities to carry out that work.
Each voluntary organisation has targets in tackling violence, training, health and community safety,” said Mr Parkes. -end-
‘There’s gross inequality in this city – not just Lambeth’
Cllr Mo Seedat, Lambeth council’s cabinet member for safety, said: “Violence is an infection and it can be treated in the same way. “We are recognising the link between deprivation and an environment which is more conducive to crime.
Alcohol and drug misuse are indicators of a disparity and a malaise in the community.
“There is gross inequality in this city, not just in Lambeth – though this borough may be more polarised than others.
“This is the start of a decade-long journey, but we are taking the first steps.
“We are going into areas like the Tulse Hill estate and tackling the issues block by block – family by family, if necessary – to find out what is steering young people towards criminality.
We need to build up resilience in families and involve schools, housing associations and council houses.”
Cllr Seedat, pictured, said grooming children to carry drugs and sell them outside London was a growing problem.
“But no one had ownership until now,” he said. “No one has responsibility for this. So everyone needed to be signed up – police, the council and the NHS.
The Public Health Model makes it everyone’s responsibility. “But to work, there has to be resources, which means money.
Instead, budgets of schools and the police have been cut – we have lost 40 per cent of officers since 2010.
That means vital support like community outreach and data collection are just scrapped. Trust in police officers is not possibly unless we see and recognise them consistently.
“The Lambeth Walk is about raising awareness of the Public Health Model but also telling our community workers that we take their work seriously.
We want to make sure Young Lambeth Co-op’s youth workers get the support and training they need.
A lot of it is common sense, but it needs money.”
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