A charity supporting vulnerable young people in Coventry has spoken of the “real tragic challenges” the city’s youth have experienced over the past year, and how they pulled through.
Coventry’s Positive Youth Foundation (PYF) supports young people in some of the toughest circumstances.
They work to raise the aspirations and life chances of young people in the city, but the coronavirus pandemic has posed real and practical challenges to the essential work they do.
That, coupled with the fact that promised youth funding has failed to materialise – such as a £12m funding boost to youth services announced in October 2019 – has also hit their operations.
Their latest impact report spoke of the “real tragic challenges in the city involving young people, many of them who had involvement with PYF.”
And after one of their members was shot in March 2020 during the first lockdown, the work that they do has never been more essential.
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In 2019-20 PYF supported 2,400 young people and two thirds lived in the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods in the city.
They hold sessions across the city but are based in Hillfields, which sits in the St Michael’s ward of Coventry.
Coventry is proportionally a young city, and the St Michael’s ward has a youth population of 58% (this is also because it has a high student population.)
Covid-19 has only intensified the structural and environmental challenges that face young people in Coventry, and more often than not these factors are out of their control.
Speaking to CoventryLive , PYF CEO Rashid Bhayat said: “During lockdown one people in inner city communities had to turn their lives around, [they may have] lived in a very small house or flat and there’s one TV or one Playstation.
“It wasn’t unusual to hear that young people were staying up all night just so that they can have access to some of their own space or some of the shared stuff.”
PYF are truly embedded in the community, and are trusted.
Watch: The community in Hillfields
But Mr Bhayat spoke of the challenges that lie ahead, even once we come out of lockdown: “The main impact has been isolation, the vast majority of young people have observed the restrictions properly, young people are very social beings in their nature.
“At the start of lockdown there was high engagement but that started to dip off.
“In other cases it has been really tough and with digital poverty it is a real thing.
“It’s not easy for a young person to admit they don’t have internet at home, most young people will use free WiFi hotspots, but there’s an impact on education when schools are saying to the kids learn at home.”
He added: “We need to go in with our eyes wide open that when we do come out of lockdown there is going to need to be a significant amount of support that young people will need to feel secure again.
“We can’t expect just to click our fingers and come out of lockdown and young people going into a routine.”
And how have they managed to stay in touch with and support some of the most at risk young people in Coventry? Mr Bhayat explained they’ve had to get creative with virtual cooking competitions, lending out laptops, and doorstep visits to ensure young people are staying safe.
But as the report spells out, it was been an extraordinarily difficult year for communities in Coventry.
‘The gig economy closed overnight’
The report says: “Tragically the year was marred by gang violence affecting mostly young people, including three murders and the arrests of some young people we work with.
“Youth work cannot be measured by the lives we save or the deaths we prevent, but the toll on families, friends, colleagues and the wider community has caused us to think carefully about the work we do and how we respond to these terrible events.”
It went on: “Most young people in Coventry are doing relatively well but there are still too many who face significant challenges not of their own making.”
Mr Bhayat spoke of the tireless work that the team does to gain the trust of young people, and the most common factors they have to contend with.
He said: “We have to be realistic, we have to make the most of every opportunity that comes our way and keeping a real close eye on how young people are feeling and what they need.
“Unemployment for young people, they were hit hardest in terms of implications. The gig economy closed overnight and that was their lifeline for many young people, economically the impact has been significant.”
There is no yardstick to measure the success of youth work, much of it is organic or goes unnoticed, but Mr Bhayat praised the flexibility of his team and resilience of the young people who attend PYF sessions.
“Young people are doing an exceptional job considering the poor example that is often being set by adults.
“We’re not seeing wholesale adults behaving during lockdown but when it’s young people we’re very quick to point the finger.”
One highlight of the year was the meteoric success of one of their former members and Hillfields lad, Pa Salieu.
It was announced earlier this week that he had won the highly coveted BBC Sound of 2021, a prestigious prize won by the likes of Adele, Ellie Goulding and Michael Kiwanuka.
In a past interview with CoventryLive, Salieu credited the work of PYF workers who helped keep him on the right track: “I started music because of Changing Trax (a local youth programme), Susie from PYF (Positive Youth Foundation) is one woman that knows my story, in school I wasn’t a bad youth, I was observant. Susie literally forced me on the open mic in the canal basin, I did a freestyle, my friend videoed it on my i-pad, uploaded it on Instagram, ten people liked it, I started doing little freestyles again on Insta, two or three times and my third time I came across the studios.” he said
Of course, there will be everyday victories that we will never see but will have gone towards keeping another young person in Coventry safe.
Looking forward to 2021, Mr Bhayat said the focus will be on getting back to their everyday programmes once it is safe to do so, and providing robust mental health support for young people coming out of lockdown.
If you are interested in finding out more about PYF you can email: email@example.com.
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