Just off Coldharbour Lane in south London's Lambeth neighborhood, a group of men stand around at the mouth of an alley, close to a 10-foot-high steel gate being manned by three people.
In other parts of this neighborhood, these images might be ominous. But above the gate are letters spelling out "Love". The walls are painted with images of peacocks and trees, an explosion of warm colors that assure the children streaming into the Kids Company support centre that this is a safe haven. Inside, children are eating hot meals, sculpting clay figures and playing games together. Adults read to them, or teach computer skills.
"For a lot of our kids, this is their last resort," said Derrick "Anthony" Mitchell, the duty manager at Kids Company who said he once ran with a gang.
The centre was started 11 years ago by Camila Batmanghelidjh, a psychotherapist who mortgaged her own home to start the organization. An overwhelming percentage of the kids who visit have come on their own, hearing about the program through word of mouth. Many of them have trouble getting a meal at home, or may not even have a home, and have been exposed to or involved with gang violence.
Mitchell said the challenges are nothing new to London's impoverished neighborhoods. He sold drugs, and lost a family member to violence at age 19 when his sister bled to death after being stabbed in the leg. He says the problems are only recently emerging.
But Zievrina Wilson, the centre manager for Kids Company, said she's seen a shift in the recent years. On 5 November, she said she was riding on a bus when a bullet crashed through the window, narrowly missing her head. At the centre, newspaper clippings of three teens who lost their lives to violence are posted in a dimly-lit alcove.
"They go to schools in failing areas, there's not any aspirations, and the teachers don't care," Wilson said. "No one fights anymore. Kids are shooting each other over post codes because they have nothing else to aspire to. It's a mask, so no one can hurt them again."
Wilson said Kids Company is about "empowering young people, by any means necessary". On one corner of the building, volunteer Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, is watching kids fiddle on computers. In the next room, a 9-year-old girl has made a whimsical half-human, half-animal creature out of clay. "Lots of people tell me I'm good," the girl says of her art. And in the back, 17-year-old Kayann Lewis is singing and strumming a guitar inside a music studio.
What appears to be a thriving after-school centre is much more, said David Gustave, an educational motivator. Kids are screened at the outset, and are offered therapy and counseling. Some need guidance to find housing or work their way back into school, all of which the group can assist with.
"Young people carry a lot of stuff – they're victims, really," Gustave said. "Through loving and stable relationships, they can gain empathy and trust. The kind of things we take for granted."