“Why would you want to go and change gang members?” a friend of mind asked. “These young people can’t be changed and as an ex-offender yourself you know… even if the organisation likes you you’ll never really be trusted. Every time a phone goes missing the fingers will be pointed at you.”
This is what people said to me when I was talking about my ideas. Just a few really believed in me. I maintained that if I could change just one life – just one – the time I lost in prison would not be wasted. A long time ago I was a very different person. Writing this now seems weird – like I am talking about someone else. But the scary thing is that it is my life. I dropped out of education when I was 14, was attacked and robbed many times. My outlook on life was very different. I wasn’t raised in wealth and quickly learned that sometimes you can do absolutely nothing wrong yet still become a victim. I decided I did not want to be found lacking. This meant carrying a knife to feel safe, being around with a group for protection and – ultimately – this led to some serious mistakes.
But all of that changed 10 years ago when I was given this wonderful opportunity to build a project from scratch by an organisation that believed in me. Towards the end of my prison sentence, I came out on day release to St Giles Trust to sit an interview for a job working with young offenders in Southwark. Before I got back to prison I was told I had the job – one with a salary and responsibilities. I had lost both my parents and wanted nothing more than to show my sisters and brother that their support during my time inside wasn’t wasted.
On October 2nd 2006 I was released and started work the next day. That was ten years ago and it is amazing to think how much SOS has changed. It started with me as the sole worker in Southwark and we now cover 12 boroughs across London. We have been able to conceive and develop new services to keep up with changing needs. When the second youngest person was innocently killed on the streets of London through knife crime we identified the need for prevention. We established SOS+ to offer early interventions in schools, colleges and pupil referral units. We developed services for knife and gun trauma victims in partnership with the Royal London Hospital and vital outreach work with young women and girls at risk through Expect Respect.
Regardless of whatever label we choose to place on the issue of serious youth violence the reality is these are young people from complex, chaotic backgrounds who have no fall-back options and no positive role models. Many don’t have a safe place to stay so they might sleep on buses or under cars. Their Mum might be an addict and so they are the breadwinner of the household. With every other word their Dad may hit them or maybe – like me – they were a victim first long before they became a perpetrator. It is not as easy as saying ‘don’t carry a knife” or “don’t deal drugs”. Their enemies could live two doors away so how can they get past them to even go to school?
SOS has always been and remains an ex-offender led project. There is simply no-one better qualified at understanding the complex realities of our clients. To an irrational problem, we are the most rational solution.
But gangs and serious youth violence continue to evolve. The desensitisation of violence and acceptability of exploitation mean that young people do not understand the consequences of carrying and ultimately using a knife. The disclosures we have received from pupils in schools – including mainstream schools in non-deprived areas – during SOS+ sessions have been shocking. They include young people believing there is a safe place to stab someone, that large sums of money can be made through dealing and that young men believe girls and young women have no right to refuse sex. Young people are stunned when SOS breaks it down and shows them the real consequences of these attitudes and behaviour. But it worries me that the next generation believes such behaviour is almost uncritically accepted.
The rise of county lines has meant an increase in sexual exploitation and grooming where young people are being exploited to carry drugs all over the country. This is an area SOS responds to so well through becoming a go-between for vulnerable young people and the police.
Change for our young people is not easy. It takes many, many hours and resources to create just the spark in someone for them to realise that an exit from their lifestyle is possible. They then need ongoing and intensive support to ensure they don’t slip back into old habits. This has only been possible though our incredible caseworkers who work so passionately and intensely with every client. Real work in this field can never be 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, real work means being on hand, working out of hours and being flexible to your approach and outcomes.
This life-changing, life-saving work only happens because of the support and donations we receive. Every penny goes towards making a real difference to the lives of clients who need help and care. Without us they don’t have many options.
I still have nightmares about the past but as time progresses I’m sleeping more soundly. Every day I know we are changing and – most importantly – saving lives.
Junior Smart, Founder, SOS Project