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Podium: How should we listen to the young?

Extract from a speech made yesterday by the chief executive of Centrepoint to the London Drug Policy Forum
WHEN THINKING about it I wondered how I or someone in my position are able to listen to young people. Occasionally I am able to talk with them but I also have to recognise that they may not wish to tell me personal things, so often the conversations I have are only surface deep. I then reflected that there are actually different levels and different ways of listening.

Do we listen to what is said, can we listen to statistics, can we listen to actions? I'd like to say something about what we do with what we hear, how we can make listening worth the while of the speaker.

The people who listen at Centrepoint are the project and housing workers. This is what some young people told them.

Richard was marginalised from the family because mum and dad, both unemployed, could no longer afford to look after five children and, as he was the oldest, he was old enough to look after himself when he reached 16.

Tony was marginalised from employment because he was constantly late for work. This was because he was having nightmares and flashbacks about the sexual abuse he was trying to survive.

Rachael was marginalised from family life and education because, although she was resitting her GCSEs, her parents could not tolerate her behaviour, as she stayed out late at night and they did not like the friends she mixed with. They asked her to leave the family home. Being homeless meant that she had to move to a different area and so could not complete the course she had started.

Sharon was marginalised from family life because she was taken into care at the age of three. Her parents were both alcoholics and neglected her and her brother.

The theme of the last 10 years has been the importance of the family and the family looking after its own. The example of Richard is just one of many young people who ended up homeless as a direct result of the previous government's policy of cuts in benefits for 16- and 17-year-olds. Some families already living on benefits could not afford to keep their 16- or 17-year-old any longer, so they were told to go, and many ended up homeless. It was argued that there was no need for benefits as there were training schemes for such teenagers to attend.

The reality was that for some people, someone like Tony, the support he needed to enable him to undertake any training or employment just was not there, so he failed. The second point is that there were just not enough places, and the quality of some of the training schemes was extremely poor.

Now, although welfare to work is good in principle, the 13 weeks allocated for the Gateway programme does not take into account the needs of the most marginalised and, therefore, most vulnerable young people. We would wish to see a more flexible approach to this to ensure that those who wish to work or go back to education are not marginalised again because they are not emotionally ready to take up the demands of work after 13 weeks.

If we are to develop appropriate services for young people who use drugs we have to listen to what they want. One thing that all the young people I mentioned have in common is that they all use drugs. Most use cannabis on a regular basis. They do not see their drug as a problem - they feel it is part of their life. For some young people the use of drugs can be a way of socialising, relaxing, because, as one of them said: "It's better than alcohol `cause you don't get aggressive." These young people know the difference between soft and hard drugs, many are contemptuous of hard drugs.

We see many young people who do use hard drugs, but, until the reason for its use is removed, then why should they stop? Why remember the pain of being sexually or physically abused? Why have to think about not being loved, not being cared for?

If there are to be services for these people, then they must be easy to access, age-specific and address the reason for the drug use on its own.

The reality is that we live in a society where drugs are easy to get hold of - pounds 2 for a foil of heroin. There are two realities of drug use. There is the side of it which is a part of the lives of young people today, that of recreation and experimentation, where what they most need is knowledge to enable them to make safe choices.

The other side is the need to provide holistic services that are easily accessed for those young people who have gone from being in control of their drug use to where the drug is in control of their lives.