Street children given a new life

Street children given a new life

 

Down ... but thanks to Kids Company, not out
 
Down … but thanks to Kids Company, not out
Picture posed by model

 

JULY 18, 2007
 


 
WITH gang culture tightening its terrifying grip on Britain, one woman is leading the fight back.

Camila Batmanghelidjh founded Kids Company in 1996 and helps thousands of vulnerable youngsters overcome abuse, violence and the deadly drugs trade to become model citizens.

Here, two of her young charges tell their shocking stories as we profile the amazing work done by the charity.

Antoine’s story

HARDCORE hoodie Antoine is 19 and has spent most of his life on the streets. He has sold drugs and worked as a male prostitute to survive. When you read what the young Londoner – now studying to be a barrister – has endured, you may understand why:

When I was a baby, my mum had a mental breakdown and started drinking heavily.

Soon she was using crack.

During the night, people looking for my mum would often break into our house.

They would come into my bedroom and beat up family members.

I was sexually abused at the age of four because of this open house environment.

When I was eight my mum had started on heroin and I spent my time living with different family members.

Back home there would always be prostitutes and different men in the house and it wasn’t safe.

When mum had a binge period I wouldn’t have any clothes or food and there was a lot of shame.

A neighbour used to give me chips to eat — that was all I had.

Social services came to see us but did nothing.

I was roaming the streets by the age of 11 and by 14 I had turned my first trick, prostituting. Prostitution for drugs or food is rife among the kids I grew up with and their parents. I would perform oral sex for £20 and full sex for £40.

I got involved in drugs at 16. I knew I was gay by that time and a boyfriend introduced me to it.

Gang wars are all about white powder (cocaine), brown powder(heroin) and rock (crack).

It means money, survival, credibility and a stepping stone to a better life.

If I could make £300-a-day carrying drugs, I would do it.

Children as young as nine and ten are being given drugs to carry across boroughs in London.

And they are being told they will be shot if they don’t do it.

I started with pills, GHB, poppers, glue, weed and cocaine.

I never touched crack because of my mum’s experiences. When I was having sex with people for money, the drugs helped me to blank things out.

My life was filled with guilt, pain and fear — I was very aggressive.

Finally, I knew I had to find a way out. I began going to a day centre in Kings Cross, London, set up for young sex workers, and joined a drama group. I started acting with David Harewood, who starred in Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio.

I was playing myself in a production in June last year and Camila was in the audience.

She came up to me afterwards and said that even if it took all her life she would help me reach my full potential.

Camila and her team have turned my life around.

I began attending therapy sessions and I was introduced to a barrister, who became my mentor.

I’m currently studying law and I have offers to go to college.”

Chelsea’s story

CHELSEA, 17, started selling crack when she was 11 but with the help of tuition from Kids Co is now due to take her GCSEs. She says:

I grew up in Brixton with my mum. My dad was in jail for robbery. When he came out he started smoking crack.

When I was 11 the problems got worse — it was more mental abuse than physical and I became mute for a whole year.

I started getting into what I call a “family” and others call a gang. I would stay with them and we’d go out and make money together.

I sold crack from the age of 11. The first person who gave me something to sell was my dad. He also gave me a gun and told me to hide it.

I know ten-year-olds who are standing on the block right now with a gun and a kilo of crack on their waist.

That’s what it’s coming to. Society is neglecting to see when parents are failing and no one is intervening.

Bad stuff is being written about shootings and hooded thugs but it’s been getting worse for years. It’s not petty crime, it’s serious business.

When I came to Kids Co I could get meals and change in my pocket to buy food — I didn’t have to sell drugs any more. I’m taking my GCSEs now. Kids Company has become my new family.

Dedicated Camila will give her all to save young lives

Saviour ... Antoine with Kids Company founder Camila
Saviour … Antoine with Kids Company founder Camila
Picture: ARTHUR EDWARDS

SHARON HENDRY
Reports from the Kids Co centre in Camberwell, South London

CHILDREN scream and run for cover as the sound o
f gunfire fills the air.

Sirens wail and armed police surround the building. The room I am sitting in is sealed off and I am told to stay where I am or risk a rogue bullet ricocheting into my head.

This is not a dispatch from a Somalian border town or an unstable Iraqi enclave.

Incredibly, this is a residential street in South East London on a Friday afternoon.

A war is breaking out in the capital and this week I found myself on the front line.

Kids Company is the target. But founder Camila Batmanghelidjh says it is not the first time her safe haven has come under siege.

The project provides food, shelter, therapy and education for children, including gang members caught up in the drugs business.

Dealers rely on child couriers to help ply their trade and do not take kindly to attempts by Camila’s team to prise them away.

Today, one has come back to reclaim his young charge.

Iranian-born Camila, 43, likens violent gang members to suicide bombers in that their lives are so bleak they have nothing to fear from death. She says knife and gun bans do not work — new weapons will merely be found.

“Many children of violence have experienced such extreme violence themselves growing up,” she continues. “The children I speak to recall being stripped and beaten, watching their step-father smash their mother’s skull — and many are the children of drug addicts who never experience any decent family life.

“They are attracted to the father-like spell that drug dealers cast over them, offering food, money, firearms, even LOVE, in exchange for drug-running.

“They experience a sense of power and enjoy being perpetrators of violence after spending so long as the victim. If you are ever the victim of a stranger attack by one of these children, the worst thing you can do is beg for survival.

“In your begging they will see the helpless child they once were and hate themselves — in turn they will probably kill you.”

So what is the solution to the terror increasingly engulfing Britain’s streets?

“You can’t punish parents into being good parents,” says Camila. “You have to address the social care structures that don’t step in robustly enough when parents are struggling.

“Social services is currently under-funded and there is a huge discrepancy between children referred and those actually on the at-risk register. We need to tackle this with better-funded mental health support, social services and activities.”

Running Camila’s centre, which cares for some 500 exceptionally vulnerable children 52 weeks a year, costs £3million annually.

Their work, using volunteers and trainees, to deliver support in schools for a further 10,000 less-challenged children costs £1.2million.

Camila says: “We have to raise £4.5million a year, and we received this money from 4,700 donors in 2006.

“But we cannot continue begging for resources and money for such an urgent front-line service which should be delivered by the Government.

“The Treasury part-funded Kids Company for the last three years, allowing us to become a really good service. The grant runs out in March 2008 — we need to know, what next?”

s.hendry@the-sun.co.uk

  • Kids Co relies on charitable donations to continue helping children. If you want to help, contact them at: info@kidsco.org.uk or visit kidsco.org.uk.
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    No love left for London’s street children

    No love left for London’s street children

    Evening Standard (London), Jun 9, 2006 by JOHANN HARI

    FOR most gay people, London is a liberal bubble – one of the world’s safe places. From the gloriously scuzzy streets of Soho, it can seem like millennia of homophobia have passed in the night like a bad nightmare. But for the thousands of teenage gay runaways who head for our streets every year, homophobia has burned away even their bonds with their parents – and they are in extreme danger even when they arrive here in Shangri-La.

    Meet Ronnie Andrews. He lights a cigarette, runs his hand over his shaved head and begins – in his fractured, halting speech – to explain how he ended up here.

    "My mum’s boyfriend kicked me out three years ago, when I was 16," he says, looking away. "He found out I was gay, and said I was a pervert, diseased, all that. He told me never to come back, and never to see my mum and my little sisters again. He said I was a bad influence on them."

    He slept on a bench in the local park, and tried to go back the next day.

    His mum’s boyfriend threatened him, and he got the message.

    Ronnie found himself alone in the world with a bag of clothes, a load of neuroses and nothing more. He began a long period of "sofa- surfing" – moving from friend to friend, slowly eroding their hospitality until he was chucked out.

    "I lost a lot of friends and upset a lot of people. I was always drunk. I was taking the piss. I didn’t have anything to offer them. Or they just got bored with me."

    Desperate, he began to exchange sex for favours. "I still remember the first man. It was disgusting. He was really old, and I had never had sex before. It was really painful, I was shaking, but I needed the money so I tried not to think about it." And with the pain of prostitution came pills and coke, the inevitable cliches of life on the street.

    He picks at his nails as he relays all this, but he serves up this narrative in a strangely emotionless tone. I ask if he is angry with his mother for not sticking up for him. "No, I didn’t want her to get involved. I knew she loved [her boyfriend]." It is only when I offer a streak of empathy – it must have been horrific, I say – that I see a crack of emotion. His face involuntarily scrunches and he says: "Trust me, it was."

    Ronnie skidded into a lucky streak when a friend pointed him towards Stonewall Housing, one of the very few organisations that help the 30 per cent of London’s runaways who are gay or lesbian, and tossed out by parents who hate gays more than they love their kids. They found him a flat, and – with industrial-strength antidepressants – he is starting to tend to his wounds.

    But this hardly ever happens to runaways. Incredibly, Martin Houghton-Brown, policy adviser for the Children’s Society, tells me there are only 10 emergency beds in the whole of Britain for the 100,000 children who run away every year. That’s 10 – no misprint.

    "Compare that to the US, where every major city has drop-in centres, and there are 17,000 permanent hostel places," he says. Local councils are supposed to provide emergency accommodation, "but we often hear them say to a very vulnerable runaway, ‘There’s no room now, come back in a week,’" Martin explains.

    There are thousands of kids like Ronnie clamouring to enter our liberal bubble here in Zone One. What does it say about us that we leave them to sell their bodies and their souls on the streets?

    – Gay runaways can call Stonewall Housing’s advice line on 020 7359 5767.

    Runaway children to get help

    Thursday, 22 March, 2001, 16:58 GMT

    Missing children picture

    Tens of thousands of British children run away every year

    Britain’s runaway children could be offered counselling and a roof over their heads, the prime minister has suggested.

    Every year 77,000 British children under 16 run away from home for at least one night.

    Many flee physical or mental abuse at home, and a quarter end up sleeping on the streets with some surviving through begging, stealing, drug dealing and prostitution.

    The consultation report was launched on Thursday by Tony Blair, who said it was important to find out why so many children run away and why so many are reluctant to return home again.

    ‘Immediate safety’

    He said: "We have to make it less likely that young people run away in the first place and, if they do run, ensure their immediate safety.

    missing kids screen

    The internet is also being used to find missing children

    "And we must not just turf them back where they came from without finding out why they ran away and addressing these issues."

    The consultation process will be carried out by the government’s Social Exclusion Unit.

    The unit will work with runaways and goverment departments to formulate future policy.

    The document, launched by the prime minister, suggest runaways who are found on the street should be identified and interviewed.

    A network of refuge provision and reintegration support could ensure that runaways have the option of shelter.

    It is also suggested that each area will have standardised procedures for dealing with runaways, and a named person will be in charge of co-ordinating services.

    Missing children

    Many missing children end up sleeping rough on the streets

    The consultation document has been welcomed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

    A spokeswoman said: "These children face enormous risks and trauma, often hiding and alone on our streets. It is crucial we take their needs seriously and ensure they are safe and supported in the long-term."

    The NSPCC is urging the Government to set up a nation-wide network of targeted protection and prevention services to support children who run away.

    The society pointed out that, although there is a statutory provision for accommodation for runaway children, there is only one left in the whole country, the London Refuge.

    Madeline Ismach, NSPCC London director, said: "Thousands of vulnerable children run away every year.

    "The Refuge provides a safe place where young people can talk about the problems which forced them to run away and aims to