On 23 March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the UK Government announced a lockdown. People were restricted from all but essential travel, permitted to get out for exercise once a day, and all but essential workers were told to remain at home. I live in an inner city high crime area. When I’m out and about I’m conscious not to get my phone out, I regularly see drug deals occurring openly on the streets, and there are areas that I deliberately avoid. So as the lockdown occurred, determined to get a walk in every day, I wondered how my neighbourhood would be affected.
Uncharacteristically for April in northern England we experienced something of a heatwave. With gyms closed, people began running, walking and exercising outdoors. Taking back the parks, the stark contrast struck me a couple of weeks into our lockdown. On a warm afternoon I noticed a young person on a bike, wearing a thick winter coat and wearing a balaclava. Not surprisingly, he look extremely out of place, uncomfortable and exposed as he stood waiting on street corner. I’ve seen him several times dealing drugs, always on the same corner, pre-lockdown, during the lockdown and I assume he will continue to appear after this is over.
My point is that now is a good time to easily identify youth who are being exploited by either adults gangs or through their own drug addictions and debts. Suddenly, the people who used to cycle round the area with an air of confidence appear less at ease. We know from research into gang membership and drug dealing that many young people feel trapped and wish to escape their situation. Pressure from peers and adult criminals makes desistance even harder. For many young people, however, the lockdown has eased some of these influences and given people time to reflect.
Researchers describe the push and pull that so-called “elders” exercise over young people who are gang involved (Harding, 2014). Our current situation has shifted this dynamic, because although young people can still be contacted via social media they are less accessible. The lockdown has also made working with young people difficult for youth workers, but it has also provided the perfect excuse for young people who wish to disengage from gang life, co-offending networks, and crime to do so. So, how best can young people be supported?
Those who are ready to disengage with their delinquent and criminal groups will likely be keen to continue to work with their mentors and youth workers. We know that adult criminals recruit young people to sell and distribute drugs from the streets (Whittaker et al., 2018). Therefore, as we emerge from the lockdown finding alternative recreational activities and supporting young people with coping mechanisms to remain focused on an alternative lifestyle are crucial. Providing the young person is drug debt free, if their interest and accessibility diminishes, then their use and appeal to those who exploit them is also greatly reduced. Now really is the time to support those who are involved in lower level gang activities and delinquent or criminal networks. The more entrenched young people become, the harder it is to support them away from a pathway of violence and criminal involvement.
Harding, S. (2014). Street Casino: Survival in violent street gangs. Policy Press.
Whittaker, A. J., Cheston, L., Tyrell, T., Higgins, M. M., Felix-Baptiste, C., & Harvard, T. (2018). From Postcodes to Profits: How gangs have changed in Waltham Forest.