Scene of the crime
First Published 04 November 2015
When home is a threatening place to live, the only alternative may be the street, says Mark Johnson
I will never forget my first night of homelessness, the sheer isolation of it. The knowledge that I had lost every choice that had been open to me, and I was finally left sleeping in the streets.
I’d watch people on the tube knowing that in their bags were the keys to their flats. I wished I were them. I even thought their dog’s life must have been better than mine.
It was misery, but it didn’t just come out of nowhere. My life had effectively been spent on the streets, right from earliest childhood. But I wasn’t one of those kids unlucky enough to live in appalling housing conditions.
Anyone visiting my family home would have found it clean and tidy. You would have been fooled into thinking we were normal, as long as dad wasn’t drunk and my mother hadn’t been taken over by a bout of religious hysteria. My family disguised the sobbing and bruised children, the dinner thrown in people’s faces, the terror that you could practically reach out and touch, behind a nice, neat facade.
Small wonder then, that I chose to spend every waking moment on the streets with my mates, my support network. To others, we might have looked like a threatening gang. Yes, we did carry knives, and we did scare people -engaging in the kind of anti-social behaviour that had police cars in our street in five minutes.
But on the inside I was a kid who was just too scared to go home. The others always seemed to disappear back inside their houses long before I did. That was the start of the desperation that isolation brings -when there’s nowhere to go and you’re all alone. If I was frightening to others, I was terrified myself.
When I was 29, I came off the streets, got clean and started a new life. Now I’m 37. I’m described as an activist. My work brings me into contact with kids who are just like I was -I’ve recognised my younger self on a hundred street corners trying to look big and get some respect.
If you ask them why they’re carrying a knife and going around in gangs, they’ll say they’re just bored. But talk to them about their lives and you’ll soon come up with other explanations.
At a conference this year, held by and for ex-offenders, we discussed the root causes of crime. A background of poverty and deprivation, parents who use drugs or were similarly chaotic due to mental illness, an abusing parent -these are all among the predisposing factors for crime. Not one person in the room wanted to be a criminal. Most felt that the reality of their grim home environment had given them no options.
That’s what’s hard for middle-class people to understand. Poverty, bad housing, neglect, abuse -these are not just the trappings of a life without choice, they actually take away those choices. How many kids from rat-infested homes will be off to university next year? And how many will be entering penal institutions?
If we want to stop young kids from roaming the streets we have to stop marginalising them and start talking to them. When I ask them what kind of a life they’d like, I nearly always get the same answer -they want to move away from this area and live in a nice house, somewhere else.
When I was their age I’d have said the same thing. The fact is that a kid who doesn’t feel he can go home will soon be in trouble out on the street.
Mark Johnson is a special adviser to the National Probation Service and The Prince’s Trust, an author and a journalist. His memoir, Wasted, is published by Little Brown./p>
Greater self-sufficiency and stronger community ties are the key to progress, says Michael Portillo
During my time as an MP, I came across many housing problems. But the biggest issues weren’t about the state of people’s properties. They had to do with communities.
Many of the people I dealt with lived in constant fear of bullying, intimidation, burglary and physical violence.
In many areas, informal systems of authority had broken down and parental authority was largely absent. I had the feeling that in the old days there would have been a system of informal leadership on estates. Figures of authority would have dealt with youngsters who were becoming troublemakers and offered protection to other tenants. The police, too, would have been able to exercise some of their powers with greater informality. In centralising control we have diminished the role of these informal structures of authority that give people security.
It is increasingly evident that many housing problems are too complex to be resolved by housing professionals alone. They are the result of shifts in social, welfare, education and law and order policy. It worries me that a large group of young people are not in education, employment or training -the so-called neets -and that their lives are being wasted. We can ignore the economic cost of this failure because we are a prosperous nation and can replace these young people with immigrant labour. But it’s not a problem that we can afford socially. And certainly not one we can afford if we have a social conscience. We need to bring a renewed focus on those people who are falling through the net.
Looking at the United States, it seems that welfare policy is moving away from the something for nothing culture to something for something. People who are capable of working are now required to take action in return for payment. That might be going on a course, getting a qualification or improving language, numeracy or social skills. The welfare system is being used to drive people forward and make them better able to provide for themselves.
We need to look to our closer neighbours and understand whether they have a different approach that enables informal authority structures to blossom. We have to ask ourselves why, for example, we have a vastly higher incidence of teenage pregnancy than comparable countries such as Holland.
A few years ago, I made a television programme about being a single mother. I replaced a lady in her housing association house in Wallasey and looked after her four children.
We made the film in April and it was warm enough for the children to play out in the streets in the evening. I was struck by how all the mothers sat on the doorsteps of their houses watching what was going on in the street. Everyone participated in looking after the children and there was a strong sense of community, even in a situation where men were largely absent.
But probably the single largest cause of social inequality in this country is the inflation in house prices in recent years. There is now a bigger gap than ever between those who own a property and those who don’t, those who will inherit a property and those who won’t.
Although I have repented of many things in politics, I have never repented of believing in home ownership. But it strikes me as bizarre that we all connive in property inflation while at the same time discussing how we can make housing affordable.The result of house price inflation has been rising inequality¬†-and that is the source of many of our present troubles.
Michael Portillo is a journalist, broadcaster and former cabinet minister.
With more thought, housing estates could actually be the best places to live, says Shaun Bailey
Housing estates have their share of problems. But, for me, they’re a better choice than any suburb as a place to live.
You’re more likely to know your neighbours -you help them, they help you. When things go wrong, you can sort it out together. During last year’s Notting Hill Carnival people were peeing everywhere on our estate. Twelve of us went to the police and they put up a barrier the next day. It was a collective appeal and the police listened to us.
Problems on estates can’t always be blamed on residents. They often stem from the fabric of buildings -location of the blocks, size and number of rooms in houses and flats -and how they’re managed. Small things such as rubbish chutes and lifts not working can escalate into major tensions and disputes.
The biggest source of anti-social behaviour on any estate
is noise -ask anyone from Glasgow to Kent. I live in a block that’s only two years old, but I can hear the woman above
me walking around. When you can’t find rest and quiet, it makes you stressed. If people around you are stressed,
you don’t feel safe.
What happens to a lot of kids on estates is that they don’t have places where they can feel relaxed and safe. It’s vital that young people spend time at home with their parents, because that’s how family relationships develop. But where there’s overcrowding, no place to study or have family meals, and tension over noise, the kids are forced out on to the streets.
In Stockport, they’ve built an illuminated ‘bus shelter’ on one estate where there are no buses. Kids who were hanging about now have somewhere to congregate under cover, where they can be seen. It helps, but it doesn’t tackle the cause
of the problem.
Those kids are hanging about because they don’t have a home that offers them a secure environment -a place where they can relax with their family and friends.
For too long estates have been cheaply built, because they’re social housing and little consideration has been given to how people actually live.
But it’s not difficult to provide good housing estates and I passionately believe they are potentially the best places to live -they can offer a real community. Success is simple with good planning, building and management.
Shaun Bailey is director of MyGeneration, a charity involved
in youth and family work.
John Pitts analyses the economic and social factors that feed high crime rates
Neighbourhoods with high crime rates are mostly concentrated in urban areas where residents are poor, while low crime neighbourhoods are peopled by the relatively prosperous.
High crime neighbourhoods have greater numbers of unemployed residents and people dependent on means-tested benefits than low crime neighbourhoods. The question is: do high crime rates simply reflect the level of criminality among a neighbourhood’s residents or are other factors at work?
In the 1990s, the Pittsburgh Youth Development Study analysed the lives of more than 15,000 young people in different city neighbourhoods. The researchers were interested in whether young people living in poor, high crime neighbourhoods had more of the individual and family risk factors normally associated with youth offending -poor parental supervision, conflictual household, learning difficulties etc.
What they found was that offending by people with no, or very low, individual and familial risk factors occurred more frequently in the lowest socio-economic status neighbourhoods, and that the relationship between these risk factors and serious offending ‘broke down completely’ for those in the most disadvantaged communities.
These findings challenge the idea that the behaviour of individuals and their families can be separated from the social and economic circumstances in which they live. The New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell summed the findings up by saying that it was better to come from a troubled family in a good neighbourhood than a good family in a troubled neighbourhood. It appeared to be something about the neighbourhood rather than the neighbours that was driving the heightened crime rate.
Writing in the 1990s, American economist Richard McGahey argued that this ‘neighbourhood effect’ was, in fact, a product of economic segregation. His research showed that poor, high crime neighbourhoods lacked access to regular, reasonably paid employment. Residents were therefore forced to derive their livelihoods from the informal economy and labour markets characterised by low wages and sporadic, dead-end work, supplemented by ‘government transfers, employment and training programmes, crime and illegal hustles’ [which] ‘constitute important additional sources of income, social organisation and identity for the urban poor.’
Economic segregation sets in train processes that further isolate these neighbourhoods because skilled, economically mobile, adult workers leave them and their departure further destabilises the neighbourhood, deepening family poverty.
In 1986 McGahey wrote: ‘The quality and quantity of jobs in a neighbourhood determine the ways people form households, regulate their own, and the public behaviour of others, and use public services. The resulting neighbourhood atmosphere helps to shape the incentives for residents to engage in legitimate employment or income-oriented crime. A high level of adult involvement in primary sector employment spawns stable households, stable families, stable social relationships and enhanced vocational opportunities for the next generation.’ And, of course, the absence of primary sector jobs produces the opposite.
In a novel experiment which served to test whether the neighbourhood effect could be reversed, the US federal government launched its Moving to Opportunity experimental mobility programme.
Researchers tracked the fortunes of people who moved from poor and dangerous neighbourhoods to more prosperous and safer ones. They found that moving to socially mixed, ‘non-poor’ areas produced significant positive effects on child and adult physical and mental health, children’s behaviour, their involvement in crime and their exposure to violent victimisation.
These families were also more likely to become economically self-sufficient and to earn higher salaries. And much of this improvement is attributable to the fact that the neighbourhoods to which the research subjects moved were connected into local primary sector labour markets.
Unfortunately, if we look at the neighbourhoods from which violent youth gangs have emerged in the past decade, we find they share many of the characteristics identified by McGahey in the Bronx in the 1980s.
John Pitts is Vauxhall professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Bedfordshire. His latest book, Reluctant Gangsters: The Changing Face of Youth Crime, is published by Willan./em>