"Everyone used to be like, 'Come youth club,' but then people just stopped...Now they just go and stand outside McDonald's," says 17-year-old Ilham Isse, from Barnet in north London. We're sitting in a no-frills building in north London, home to one of the declining number of such youth services left in the capital. "They do that in west London as well," her friend Ari Stephenson, also 17, chimes in. "It’s always McDonald’s. That’s how all the fights start."
Ilham, Ari and their friend Lorisa Bujupi, 17, have been spending Tuesday afternoons over the past few months at Exposure, a charitable organisation in north London's Haringey, which helps vulnerable and disadvantaged young people to thrive creatively. "We work on projects, articles, podcasts, talk about stuff we’re interested in and problems we have at school. Most recently, [Ilham and I] talked about how it feels to be black and Muslim," Ari explains enthusiastically. The trio know they are lucky to have an outlet like this – somewhere to hang out, explore what they're into and just be themselves, away from peer pressure and the watch of parents and teachers. Youth clubs are increasingly few and far between in 2019.
Last month, a damning piece of research by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime (APPG) drew a direct link between council cuts to youth services, including youth clubs, and knife crime. And guess what? Some of the areas hit hardest by cuts were the ones that saw the sharpest rises in knife crime. The decline of youth clubs seems even more counterintuitive given that the government and the mayor of London have both committed to an evidence-based "public health approach" to tackling youth violence – namely, one that focuses on long-term prevention.
In London alone, the number of youth clubs has nearly halved since the 2011 riots to just 130, according to figures obtained by the Guardian in March, because these services are close to the bottom of the government's and local authorities' priority lists. "We received a very small amount of one-off funding from Haringey Council earlier this year, but aside from that, funding from local authorities has totally dried up in recent years," says Andreas Koumi, Exposure's manager, who has been there since its inception in 1996 and met many people who've been in and out of gangs and violence along the way. As a result, the service relies on pots of money from various charitable trusts and foundations that support at-risk and disadvantaged young people in London. It used to be open five days a week; it's now only open on Tuesdays.
The cuts to youth centres have made the younger generation more reckless. They don't really have a purpose.
Hayaati Njuki, 24, volunteer and former gang member
This downward trend is all the more frustrating given that the capital – and other big cities like Liverpool, where teenagers are reportedly stabbing each other for money – is in the grip of a youth violence epidemic. Most recently, five people were killed in London within six days, including two teenagers who lost their lives within 24 hours of each other on Friday, and a man in Barnet on Tuesday, who was stabbed a few hours after my visit to Exposure, on a street 15 minutes' drive away.
Stories of knife crime and gang violence are an unavoidable part of everyday life for many teens. "I hear about it every day pretty much," Lorisa says. "Friends and people around you talk about it, you hear it on the news, you hear gossip about people who have been arrested for knife violence." They tell me about a 17-year-old boy from their school who was arrested for attempted murder after fatally stabbing another teen in the chest on a bus in March.
The causes of the youth violence epidemic are, of course, myriad – racial and class tensions, territorial gangs, drugs, school expulsions, a lack of trust in the police, the housing crisis, the fallout of years of austerity and a dearth of economic opportunities and optimism in many parts of the country – but the decline of youth clubs plays a pivotal role. These safe spaces, which provide a haven away from weapons, crime and often chaotic home lives, are needed now more than ever.
"The cuts to youth centres have made the younger generation more reckless, they don't really have a purpose," Hayaati Njuki, a 24-year-old volunteer at Exposure, tells me. "People just go on killing sprees now. If they see someone from [another] area, [they think] we're just going to kill them." Having found herself embroiled in gangs as a teenager growing up in Tottenham, north London, she knows more than most about the value of spaces like this. "They've come here to just propel themselves forward and develop themselves."
Without youth services like this, what will happen to those who want to break free from the social pressure of involving themselves in organised violence, boys in particular, when it's seemingly so unavoidable? "You’ve got gangs in each area. There’s the Edmonton lot, the Tottenham lot, the Wood Green lot, Arnos Grove, and little ones in Muswell Hill. There’s gangs everywhere based on postcode," Ilham explains. Ari adds: "I feel like we're privileged as females. I hate to say it but we are. We don’t have as much pressure as our male counterparts."
Abdul Razin, 17, from Barnet, who lived on an estate during his early teens, says all his male friends were involved in either drugs, gangs, crime, or all three. He is friends with the 17-year-old who was jailed for killing another teen on the bus in March. Abdul believes there would "definitely" be less youth crime if there were more youth clubs to attract young people away from the streets. "They stay outside because they feel unwelcome by institutions...Whereas if you welcome them into a place where it's fun for them, it turns into something good. They'll feel like they're wanted somewhere."
At the end of our time together, Ari tells me: "We’re desensitised to a lot of stuff. We need to be spoken to." Lorisa finishes her thought: "But not in a way where it’s like, 'Don’t do this because you’re gonna get in trouble'. Instead it should be, 'Don't do it because you're ruining your life. You have so many opportunities in London and you’re ruining it for this'."