Recent headlines have stated that half the knife crime in London is being carried out by children and young people. According to data from the Metropolitan Police 49 per cent of knife crime is being carried out by young people aged 19 or below. This is serious.
Whether you live in London or not the impact of knife crime and the factors that drive it may reach you. Knife crime outside of London has increased at a rapid rate with figures last year stating that knife crime in Hertfordshire, Warwickshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Essex and Norfolk had almost doubled in three years. If you are a youth worker (or just a person) this should worry you.
The reasons young people might pick up knives are complex. I’m sure for some they choose to carry a knife because it makes them feel powerful. For the young people XLP works with many would say they are tempted to carry knives because of fear. Fear that they will be attacked and defenceless. Fear because they have seen violence in their community. Fear because they see the perpetrators go unpunished. Fear because they may have been mugged or experienced violence before.
A young guy I worked with told me: “You don’t get it. I don’t want to be a part of a gang, but my area has a reputation and the people running things are my friends, I’ve known them since primary school. People think I’m a part of it because I know them. So it’s better to be with them than a target on your own.” When you don’t think you have an alternative it’s crazy what you will do.
So as youth workers how should we respond?
Pray. This is always a good starting place. Pray for wisdom, opportunity, protection and favour. Prayer often leads to action…so
Don’t be scared. While the numbers are bad, remember that the vast majority of young people choose to not carry a knife. But even those young people who do need youth workers who will engage with them, not back away.
Understand their context. I moved to London from a safe middle-class town in Kent. I had no idea about the challenges young people were dealing with in London. Challenges of family breakdown, exclusion, poverty, homelessness. When you are desperate you are far more likely to take extreme measures because you feel like you have no other options. We need to fully understand the challenges our young people are facing so we can provide genuine support and interventions.
Commit. It takes time to build trust with young people. It might be frustrating, require super-human patience or make us want to walk away. Thankfully we have a God who has never given up on us, and he gives us all the strength we need to keep turning up.
Speak words of hope. That young man I mentioned told me he had no one in his life who he could trust. For many young people their circles are small, they have very few alternative, positive messages coming in. Be someone who calls out the good, who lovingly challenges the bad but who always speaks of hope. Hope that things can be different and that there is more to life than what they have currently seen.