Young people who prowls Britain’s street armed with deadly weapon are not ultimately responsible for the reasons they do so, according to a University of Kent academic.
Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh’s comments come as the UK reels from a spate of knife killings among young people and following the deaths of two teenagers at the weekend.
The criminologist, who is based at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research on the Canterbury campus, has interviewed more than 100 gang and ex-gang members to produce her research.
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She says that all too often they arm themselves for reasons beyond their control. These include lack of a safe home or actual homelessness, feeling a need to protect themselves from danger if they are involved in criminal activities and an abdication of responsibility by local authorities who see knife-wielding youths as “criminal” rather than “vulnerable”.
Dr Sanders-McDonagh said: “My research makes clear that homelessness is a major issue for young people.
“In some cases parents ask young people to leave because they feel they can’t help them if they are engaged in drug dealing.
“Some feel they want to try to keep younger children safe, and for some young people the violence they experience at home makes living on the streets a better option than staying at home.
“Being on the streets, no matter the reason, makes young people vulnerable to violence themselves and susceptible to becoming involved in gang activity.
“The insecurity of not having access to safe housing makes it difficult for them to regain a sense of stability – and when children as young as 12 are homeless and known to the local authorities, their failure to help and protect these young people is a big part of the problem.
“Local authorities frequently abdicate their responsibility to help these young people because they are seen as dangerous or criminal rather than vulnerable or in need of help.
“This only increases the likelihood that they will continue to engage in offending activities – often so that they can afford a place to sleep and food to eat.”
Dr Sanders-McDonagh adds that increasing police numbers on the streets would be like “putting a plaster on a severed artery – it may help but it will not solve the problem” even if it means more people going to prison.
She went on: “Homelessness is also an issue for young people who have been incarcerated. If they have been gang-involved and want to make a change, it is important that they have a safe place to go when they leave prison.
“The current system makes it difficult for young people to move to another area with an existing local connection – and many local authorities do not want to house a young person they see as risky.
“More reciprocal arrangements that require local authorities across London to work with one another to make sure young offenders have safe housing is key to helping young people make a fresh start.”