Thursday, 20 November 2014

Girls and gangs

A new government strategy to tackle gangs will call on social landlords to help prevent violence in their areas. Rhiannon Bury travels to Manchester to find out how one housing association is leading the way with a female mentoring scheme

The first thing that’s noticeable is the noise. The excited, bubbling chatter announces the rapid approach of the people I am speaking to today. They are late, and when they burst through the door they are full of apologies and regretful looks. It’s an onslaught of colour and sound, brusque Manchester staccato and waving hands.

The young women plunge into their chairs, smiling and suddenly shy. They are City South Manchester Housing Trust’s crack team tackling gang culture among girls in Moss Side. They know what they’re talking about because most of them have witnessed gangs first-hand.

The stories the women tell of guns hidden in attics and friends carrying drugs into nightclubs might carry a frisson of excitement in print, but the reality is far from glamorous.

Female mentoring scheme, Manchester

Dave Power, chief executive of City South Manchester Housing Trust, with Angela Lawrence, director of Manchester Active Voices

They have all seen their fair share of problems, scrapes and in some cases, prison sentences. But until recently there has been little support for girls caught up in or affected by gang culture in the area.

‘When you think of gangs you think of boys, so there are services for boys. But behind these gangs there’s always that girl who’s doing the running around for them,’ Kyra Laird, 19, explains.

‘They’re in the background and they’re doing all the dirty work,’ chips in Sharina Brown, 23. ‘It’s them that allow the boys to go out banging, they keep the drugs or the firearms, or they provide a house where they can all congregate. It’s always a girl that’s in the background, so in a sense these gangs wouldn’t run as strongly as they did without having these females.’

There’s a lot of sage nodding around the table. ‘The problems are more widespread than we think,’ Nasreen Harris, 31, adds.

In November home secretary Theresa May announced a range of measures to tackle gang crime, saying she expected organisations other than the police - including social landlords - to take more responsibility. So why did City South decide to pioneer work dealing specifically with females involved with or affected by gangs? And why are these young women so keen to help?

The scheme was set up in 2011, costs £30,000 to run and is simple: 12 young women are given mentoring training and then matched with girls the housing association itself has either identified as vulnerable or who have been brought to its attention by social services or the police. In return, the mentors are allocated an ‘aspirational mentor’ - a local businesswoman or a woman who holds a senior post in an organisation - who they can look up to for guidance and career advice. Some of the aspirational mentors share similar backgrounds to their mentees.

Speaking from experience

Cassie Scott, 27, is one of the 12 young mentors. She speaks with a calm, articulate authority about the abuse she suffered at the hands of an older boyfriend, her involvement with members of gangs, and her troublesome behaviour, which ultimately led to three-and-a-half years in prison.

For her, being involved in the programme is an opportunity to tell people what she’s been through and warn them against getting caught up in potentially dangerous situations. ‘I put myself in care at 14 because I had an abusive dad, and I had psychiatrists try and talk to me. I didn’t want to talk to them because I didn’t think they had a clue what they were talking about,’ she says, matter-of-factly.

Female mentoring scheme, Manchester

City South’s mentors (from left) Sharina Brown, Cassie Scott, Nasreen Harris and Kyra Laird

Cassie, however, knows what she’s talking about from experience and this is why she believes this scheme will help younger girls.

‘If you’ve got that connection with them - if you’ve had the feelings that they’re feeling - you can just connect to them more, and you can be more understanding,’ she says.

Sharina agrees: ‘If you’re talking to people who know where you’re coming from, I think you find it a lot easier to open up. We provide role models - it’s like a professional friendship, and as long as we stay professional they can come and talk to us about stuff.’

All the girls have received mentoring training from Manchester Active Voices, and their pride in their new skill is evident. But lurking underneath is the frustration at the lack of resources or facilities for young women which might help them make the most of their lives.

There’s a lot of talk about consequences - the mentors seem keen to instil in their charges the idea that actions have repercussions. ‘A lot of young people don’t know when to stop - they’re not aware of the consequences of actions and what it could lead to,’ sums up Cassie.

‘It’s wasn’t that I was really doing bad stuff myself, but I was involved and around certain things that I shouldn’t be doing,’ says Sharina. ‘My friends would do drug runs and I’d be sat in the car - I wasn’t directly involved but it was a stupid thing to do. And you go to certain places with certain members and as a kid you don’t realise exactly what you’re into.

‘You see all these things that go on. You see people punch your friends and then there’s nothing you can do about it because, if you do, it will escalate. Some girls just carry on because they don’t see the danger. These boys will just hit you and not care.’

At the hands of abuse

The four women talk openly about their own experiences at the hands of men who didn’t have their best interests at heart - it’s these experiences they hope they will be able to share with younger girls. ‘I got with the wrong guy, my first ever boyfriend, thought he was the love of my life, and the guy totally messed my life up,’ says Cassie, flatly.

Female mentoring scheme, Manchester

The Hulme area south of Manchester city centre

‘I don’t dwell on it now, it made me stronger, but these things can go one way or the other. I didn’t have anyone telling me [that he was involved in gangs] and when he started hitting me I didn’t tell anyone. I only left him because I found out he was cheating on me, three-and-a-half years down the line.

‘I used to hang out a lot with gangs in Longsight [an inner-city area of Manchester]. I was seeing another guy for a few months but he ended up dying. He was murdered by another gang member.’

The woman who convinced Cassie and the other mentors to share their often harrowing experiences with others is Angela Lawrence, the lynchpin of the project. Ms Lawrence is a smiling, softly spoken woman with a steely determination and a tangible passion for the people in her care. She’s the director of charity Manchester Active Voices, an organisation deemed to be doing such valuable work that City South gave her a free office in its headquarters in Hulme, south of Manchester city centre.

She first received funding for the project in August 2012: £20,000 from the Home Office’s ending gangs and youth violence fund. Since then she’s built up her bank of mentors and identified around 20 young girls who need help, some of whom have already met their mentors.

‘You’ve got children as young as 13 or 14 engaging in sexual activity with older men and putting themselves in very vulnerable positions,’ she explains. ‘They’re lost in this cycle - wanting to look like an adult, but struggling to navigate their way round the issues they’re facing.

‘There’s an age difference here - we [the charity’s leaders] are now middle-aged, so even our communication, with all the best will in the world, is a barrier. So you’ve got to empower young people to work with other young people.’

Female mentoring scheme, Manchester

Tony Lloyd, police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester

She casts a supportive eye across the young mentors sitting around her. The training they’ve received, she explains, could set them up for a future career in social work, counselling or youth work.

Breaking the cycle

The partnership with 4,500-home City South Manchester Housing Trust, which contributes the equivalence of £5,500 to the project, has allowed her to access the resources and expertise she needed to get the project off the ground.

City South’s chief executive Dave Power is enthusiastic about his involvement. ‘Our view is that a lot of the work we do is about impact on people, because people have an impact on places and an impact on our homes. To get to the root cause of why [girls become involved in gangs] we need to work with people who have a view of that close to the ground,’ he says.

While the total number of girls involved in gangs in the UK is unclear, Sue Bevelowitz, deputy children’s commissioner, estimates it is around 6,000.

Issy Taylor, business development manager at City South, adds: ‘One of the benefits of a housing trust supporting this sort of project is that we’re on the ground working with people every day - we’re not sitting in some remote place,’ she says.

Together, Manchester Active Voices and City South have managed to get some of the area’s most successful women on board to inspire the mentors. Tola Adesemowo, director of neighbourhoods at neighbouring Mosscare Housing Association, is bashfully pleased to have been picked to help out.

‘It’s something I was really privileged to be asked to be a part of, because I’ve come from the same background - local authority estate, you know? To be able to work with the young people to impart some of the knowledge that I have, it’s good.’

Ms Adesemowo explains that her own life hasn’t been plain sailing. ‘I never thought when I was 19 and with a baby that I would be a housing director in 20 years’ time, so it just goes to show that with the right support and guidance you can achieve anything you want to achieve,’ she says.

Female mentoring scheme, Manchester

Kyra Laird with her aspirational mentor Tola Adesemowo

I also meet Tony Lloyd, the new Greater Manchester police and crime commissioner, who used to be a local MP. He is full of praise for the work the mentors have been doing so far, and for the housing association’s determination to make a difference in an area of Manchester that for years has suffered a terrible reputation.

‘Many people asked, “why does City South want to get involved?”, but of course, it has as much interest in building those robust communities as I have, as those young women have. They deal with the communities and they inherit both the positive things, but also the negative things.

‘It’s great that [City South] has been the umbrella under which this project has been able to grow, but the real point for me is looking at how we can build these partnerships,’ he says.

As for the young women here today - now they are fully trained, they will soon begin meeting their charges weekly, building up a relationship over a period of 12 weeks initially, with a view to working with each individual for six months. After that, the mentees will be assessed to see what further help might be appropriate.

‘I can see how easy it is for girls who don’t have someone to look up to get dragged in [to trouble],’ Kyra muses. If each member of this group can change just one person’s situation, they say all the hard work will be worth it.

Girl gangs on the agenda

Housing providers will be encouraged to view preventing gangs and violence as part of their broader aims under new plans outlined by the Home Office in November. Home secretary Theresa May announced a range of measures to tackle gang crime, including tougher sentencing and policing, following the riots in England during August 2011.

The new strategy states that gangs cannot simply be seen as an issue for the police - other agencies, including health, education, housing and job centres, should see preventing violence as partly their responsibility.

The strategy, which is due to come into force this year, will also include plans for controversial call-ins for gang members who have not yet committed a crime in order to monitor potential trouble-makers, and plans to tackle girl gangs.

On 1 November Ms May told The Sun newspaper that £11 million of government funds would be used to create a 100-strong task force which will enforce the anti-gang blueprint across the UK.

Mick Kent, chief executive of 27,000-home housing association Bromford, says that social landlords ‘witness the problems that gangs cause in their communities’ every day.

‘Girls may be sexually exploited by gangs, families threatened, young people forced into joining gangs they would rather not join, communities destroyed,’ he states.

‘Despite convictions suggesting that gangs did not play as strong a part in those riots [in 2011], the impact of gangs on society is worsening. The type of intervention required must be productive and offer young people another option.’

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