by Roopa Mehta
We often hear statistics of young people particularly those in care or those from deprived areas being associated with gang warfare, sex work, prison life, drug trafficking and homelessness. In fact these groups are associated with nearly all “antisocial” acts. I was on BBC Radio London with another young person and Ruby Lawrence from Drive Forward Foundation (check out Drivetime from 14 September!). We were being interviewed by Chris Rogers filling in for Eddie Nestor. (Yep I name dropped but credit is where credit’s due!) I heard the shocking stats Chris was saying about care leavers getting into these, for lack of a better word “lifestyles” and I think a lot of what crossed my mind and potentially the minds of others is… why are we (and I use the term collectively because I’m a proud care leaver) tied in with these figures? Chris says “less than 1% of the population is in care yet a quarter of the prison population and maybe a third of homeless people have been in local authority care…70% of sex workers have been in care homes…” He then goes on to talk about the stats of care leavers who miss out on higher education but we’ll focus on these aspects for now.
I want to express these are all my own thoughts and opinions, there may or may not be information from other sources which will be included as references to the opinions I am stating. I, in no way mean to offend anyone who is a part of these groups or associated with these acts and my views do not reflect the views of Drive Forward. So let’s start by explaining what all these “acts” mean.
Gangs are typically made up of young people from deprived backgrounds and vulnerable people. There can be family involvement i.e. having a sibling within a gang that “requires” (and I use that term loosely because most people don’t have a choice) them to join with their sibling. Gangs are groups of people who can be involved with drug trafficking, gun and knife crime, sex or human trafficking and dangerous behaviour e.g. illegal drag racing or stunts. Gangs generally have “turfs” or sections of land which they express their authority over. If other gangs overstep the boundary “soldiers” i.e. the people on the front line may then attempt either successfully or unsuccessfully take back their land and the land of the challenging gang. Commands are usually given from the top and soldiers do not engage unless told to do so by their “elders.” This leads to what we call gang warfare.
Sex work ranges from legal to illegal acts. It includes, but is not limited to, taking provocative or suggestive photos e.g. bubble porn, page 3 models and glamour models; filming sex acts i.e. video porn, being an escort – being legally paid to be in the company of someone else (services can include a “relationship experience” where people can pay to touch or kiss the service provider up to and including sex); prostitution – selling sex or sexual acts (usually illegal); “phone sex” where the caller and the handler conversate erotically; strippers and lap/pole dancers – people who are paid to dance and remove items of clothing in a sexual manner; and finally BDSM/S&M workers where there may or may not be full sex but the provider or the customer are involved in acts which require dominance, submission and potential violence or degradation at the request of the customer e.g. being tied up and whipped gently. There are other types of sex work but these are the ones that I know of and I didn’t want to go into extremes because honestly I don’t know too much about the world of BDSM and S&M.
Now whilst this isn’t really an act as such I believe it needs to be included because a lot of people in care and care leavers do go into prison, young offenders units, are cautioned, put in police custody and finally are put on probation. Young people can also be placed into rehabilitation units or bail hostels for people who aren’t able to return home for whatever reason and need to be monitored because they are out on probation. I’ll give an explanation of what I believe each of these are:
Prison – a facility where someone who has been charged for a crime with a sentence has been placed by a judge and/or a jury.
Young offenders unit – similar to a prison usually with more rehabilitation support to encourage young people not to become a repeat offender. They cater for young people who are between the ages of 15-20 depending on their crime.
Caution – a person who has admitted to an offence are given a formal warning known as a caution.
Police custody – after someone has been arrested for a crime or suspected crime they can be placed in a holding cell within a police station.
Probation – usually for people on a suspended sentence meaning that they are given a sentence by a judge or jury e.g. 5 years suspended over 8 years which means if they commit the same crime or any crime within that period of probation (8 years) they will be placed into prison for that sentence(5 years) and the sentence of the more recent crime they committed (e.g. 5 years + new sentence).
Rehab units – for people who require court ordered rehabilitation including psychiatric treatment for crimes such as drug crime and crimes where their mental health has been looked at and come into question e.g. a violent crime.
Finally for those who don’t have somewhere safe or somewhere they can stay whilst on probation, bail hostels where people can be supported are an option for them to go to. Generally most or all of these facilities are overpopulated. (Now what does that say about our society?!)
This can include the possession, handling, transportation of legal/illegal drugs with or without the intent to sell them.
Possession – holding on to the drugs.
Handling – the packing etc. of drugs.
Transportation – moving the drugs from location to location e.g. something as simple as moving drugs from a house to a car.
Lastly, selling or the intent to sell – selling the drug for monetary gain or profit of some sort.
It’s important to know any person can do any of the above acts without selling or can be charged with all of the above acts. Drug trafficking can be by independent distributors e.g. someone who buys from a wholesaler and distributes themselves or it can be run by gangs where they buy product from a wholesaler and use their soldiers to sell, essentially being drug cartels. Though it is not illegal to sell legal drugs,k there are dangers to selling or trafficking them as they can cause health issues and have been used to have “legal highs” or to overdose on when someone wants to commit suicide. People have also accidentally overdosed on legal drugs and died from it.
Now while this one isn’t necessarily an “antisocial act” people experiencing homelessness are an underrepresented group and often suffer from stigmatisation and stereotypisation. People can be homeless because they’ve run away potentially from something that could have been putting them in danger. They could be homeless after being evicted from their homes (either council provided or not) because they are unaware of their options when it comes to benefits and what they’re entitled to, and the one we’ve all been waiting to hear; they’ve made themselves “intentionally” homeless.
The intentional part is defined by the local authority as being homeless because of something you have deliberately done or failed to do that has resulted in the loss of your home. The council will review your case and tell you if you have made yourself intentionally homeless. You might not know if you’ve done this, for example, if your landlord hands you a notice to quit and you leave but you have not received an eviction notice you could have made yourself intentionally homeless. If you are handed a notice from your landlord you can go to Citizens Advice and get information on what options you have. As I’ve been in this situation I can tell you my experience of it. I was sent to my local council and they told me I had to wait until the eviction notice was served and then wait until I was removed by bailiffs. The issue with this is that when it gets to this point, then and only then will the council get involved and sort you out with emergency housing which did not happen for me. On the TV show “Can’t pay? We’ll Take it Away!” It shows that if landlords pay for high court enforcement officers then the normal proceedings that take place for an eviction can be overridden and expedited.
So I’ve done my best to explain what each of these acts are and what they include. Now it’s time to explain why those in care and care leavers are involved in these acts. From this point onwards I will be referring to care leavers and children in care as vulnerable people so that it’s not too long! A lot of these acts can be violent, criminal and emotionally devastating, but they can also fulfil a lot of needs that vulnerable people have. As a vulnerable person one of the needs that I have is wanting to be part of a family, stability, love and consistency. Surprisingly that’s what a lot of these “shady” environments provide. Being part of a gang can be described as being in a family, there is loyalty amongst members, they are seen as brothers and sisters, there is discipline (though harsh) when members are not doing as they are told, there are chances to be “promoted” i.e. to be an “older sibling” or parental figure to new recruits and encouragement to thrive much like there would be in a family.
Prison, particularly for those who are homeless or whom prison is a revolving door, becomes the stability and consistency offenders crave. We find ourselves wanting to go back because there are rules, order, meals on the table and a bed to lay in. There are “friends” both real and those that are used for protection. For someone who is homeless on the streets such a life might be like a dream. More petty crime is committed around the Autumn and Winter months by homeless people because going to prison means safety, warmth and comfort for them. And if that’s all you’ve ever known it’s quite daunting to come out into the “real world.” In prison you may be the top dog, but out there facing the harsh reality and having to declare your crimes to potential employers, earn a wage, rear a family, you may be nothing. Going back into prison then becomes the much easier option than facing the hardships of life. There was a documentary on offenders in a well known prison, Wormwood Scrubs in Hammersmith, where I was saddened to hear a repeat offender say he kept on offending because he felt happier in prison and on the outside!
Sex work offers vulnerable people, particularly those with a low self-esteem, confidence, they can be made to feel attractive, they can be complimented and encouraged. With customers who are on the receiving end of BDSM and S&M it can give providers a sense of power and control, something that vulnerable people crave because their lives may have been chaotic and they don’t feel like they’ve control over it. On the other hand it’s also possible for vulnerable people to use sex work as a way of being punished or feeling the need to be punished, particularly those involved in violent sex acts. Some of them may have grown up only experiencing sex as a violent act, with someone telling them that they deserve to be punished over and over again, meaning that they started to believe it and it becomes a necessity for them to experience suchlike punishment in adulthood as well.
I’m not naïve, however, I know that sex work is demanding, it can push the worker’s boundaries, put them at risk and the negative aspects of sex work far outweigh the positives. But I will say the main motivation for sex work, just like with drug trafficking, is money. Being a vulnerable person means you are constantly worrying about how you will pay your bills, rent, books for higher education (if you chose to go into it), travel, food and money for any dependents you have i.e. children, older relatives or animals.
If you don’t have a well paying job or any job for that matter, you have to rely on the benefits system which may pay part of your rent at minimum and you’re usually put on some kind of income benefit e.g. Universal Credit which is paid monthly or Job Seeker’s Allowance, Employment Support Allowance or Income Support that is paid every 2 weeks. Your payment allowance depends on your age, your eligibility to work, whether you’re a part time or full time student, a carer or parent and your home circumstances e.g. if you’re in care or leaving care and between 16-18. Under 25s typically get the minimum £57.38 per week and over 25s get £72.40. That being said, trying to support yourself and all your needs even if your rent is paid for on just that amount is hard and it’s no wonder vulnerable people fall into these types of “work” to try and get by.
A lot of times vulnerable people are forced into doing these things because of money, because of a sense of loyalty to their “leaders”, because of the fulfilment of needs they get from their “family” and it’s very rare that you find someone who enjoys what they are doing. That’s not to say they don’t, there are people who do like being a part these acts but especially in the illegal aspects of these “jobs” or “occupations” these vulnerable people are the ones who are most likely to be at risk. At risk from being assaulted or killed by fellow gang members, offenders or clients, at risk of not having a better life for themselves because they are forced to think of tomorrow and not able to see the future.
On a side note, if you are aware that a vulnerable person, whether they are part of the care system or not and whether they want the help or not, you should do your best to help them find support. You don’t have to offer them support yourself but if you can help with other support, you can at least offer them a way out. A way to enrich their lives.