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Junior Smart OBE founded the SOS Project on his release from a 10 year prison sentence in 2006. It has grown over the past 14 years to become one of the largest and best known projects helping young people involved in or at risk of serious violence. Here he explains how the Covid crisis could produce many more unseen victims if we don't act fast.
It seems crazy to think that just two weeks ago I was travelling around the country, meeting with dozens of people each day and checking in with friends and family. It feels like the plot of a horror movie the world we are now living in. A very strange form of new normal where we are hearing about hundreds of lives lost every day. A normal where even when you are out shopping we are instructed to stand 2 meters apart. Imagine a world where you can no longer touch as if you do it could kill you. This is now our world for the foreseeable future.
Empty supermarket shelves and lost income means we are all discovering what life is like to struggle by on very little. Meals made with crazy combinations of food coming from whatever is lurking at the back of our cupboards, cereal with water as we’ve run out of milk, reusing tea bags as there are only a few left in the caddy. For most of us this is only a tedious annoyance for however long the shutdown lasts. But for many of the people we support, this was the reality of their lives even before Covid struck.
Things are now looking even more grim for them. The young people being exploited through county lines are regarded as ‘essential workers’ by the drug gangs and there is no working at home for them. Drug houses are terrible places at the best of times but in the middle of the Covid 19 pandemic our clients are at extreme risk of infection themselves and the possibility of spreading it further to vulnerable people in their homes and communities. We are having frank conversations with them about the importance of hand sanitizer and covering their faces whilst they are dealing.
Young people from homes who are suffering financially are tempted to go on the road again as a way of bringing some form of money in. For those who don’t have homes, many of their support networks are self isolating. We know of one case where a young person – who was turning his life around - has left his care placement as his carer became ill. He is now missing and we are desperately trying to find where he is.
These are the ones who are going to become the ‘forgotten casualties’ of the crisis if we don’t act fast. These were already the people who were ‘at risk’ before COVID but now in a time of job losses, fear, and hopelessness these are the ones which will really suffer. These are the ones that are least likely to self-isolate, call a hotline or wait in a queue to get medical help. Who is mapping them? Where do they go when their electricity was cut off over a week ago and their benefits still haven’t been paid? Where will they go when most services are closed? Their needs simply won’t wait until the epidemic passes. These are very real, very common problems for the people we work with. That’s why our team are working doubly hard to ensure that our young people and their families feel supported, highlighting that the positive progress they have made should not be derailed by the pandemic.
For many years, St Giles has working in partnership with the NHS and we know first-hand the dedication, commitment and bravery of those who work at all levels within it. They are now being tested to the very limit. There is a real risk of increased violence amongst drug gangs as supplies of drugs dwindle due to restrictions, meaning more young people ending up in hospital as a result of serious violence. We hope the support we are giving young people at this time of profound national crisis will help mitigate this and save our already stretched NHS further work in the coming months.
The Government has had to be the most interventionist one of modern times in response to this profound crisis. Although views on the measures they have taken and how fast they acted are under scrutiny, it is very positive that they have stepped up so quickly to protect most people’s wages at a time when people’s livelihoods have been profoundly affected.
But we must not risk forgetting about those who – perhaps understandably – are not deemed a priority at this time of profound national crisis and once the worst of this is over we must turn our attention to them. If we fail to do so, our already hammered public services will be struggling with this and we will all pay the price.
In the meantime, we will continue to be here for them to help them through this storm.
Junior Smart OBE, Founder of the SOS Project
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