Meet the children 'shamed for being poor' in this battling area of Leeds

Sitting in a prison cell at the age of 15 was the final straw for George.

By Susie Beever
Sunday, 15th March 2020, 11:45 am

The teenager grew up in the Harehills area of Leeds, which is in the top ten per cent of England's most deprived areas for employment, education, housing and crime.

Children in this area, like many areas of Yorkshire afflicted by child poverty, are faced regularly by crime with fewer opportunities available to them.

"I was getting into a lot of trouble at school," George says.

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"I was just hanging out on the streets smashing cars and throwing eggs at houses. Then last year, I got put into custody accused of GBH. That's when I decided this wasn't who I wanted to be anymore."

George is one of the dozens of young volunteers at a youth community centre in Harehills called CATCH, standing for 'Community Action To Create Hope'.

Built ten years ago on land where a 13-year-old girl was gang raped, CATCH is attended by hundreds of young people who seek refuge from difficult lives at home and school.

Amelia Gunn, who works for Leeds City Council tackling child poverty and volunteers at the centre, says: “In Harehills there is a lot of grooming, both sexual and gang grooming, where people exploit kids getting them into county lines drugs crimes. Kids come here to get away from that."

Children at CATCH community centre in Harehills, Leeds

Every young person at the centre on this freezing cold Wednesday evening in mid-February has their own personal reasons for coming, as well as aspirations to break out of what Amelia describes as a "downward circle" based on expectations placed upon a young person growing up in an area riddled by crime and unemployment.

Miguel is also 16, and has dreams to coach young people to play football despite receiving a backlash of racism from one team for whom he tried out.

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Moving with his family to Yorkshire from Romania 11 years ago, Miguel says he has suffered racial abuse following Brexit by people telling him to "go home".

CATCH community centre in Harehills, Leeds

"I wanted to get into football but the team didn’t want me because of where I am from," he says.

"I regret giving that up now.

“The people at CATCH have taught me never to give up on my dreams. We all as humans want to best for ourselves and provide for our families."

'Family' is a word used a lot at CATCH. Both in the literal sense, and the non-literal sense. Many children come to escape difficult lives at home, finding themselves among a different family.

"The expectation of these kids is that they cant achieve, and so they internalise that"

Nadia*, 16, says: “A lot of the people coming here have experience of domestic abuse and poverty and this is just a lifeline for them. When you come here, you’re automatically a part of the family.

"Before I came here I was really introverted and had a huge fear of going out and talking to people. I want to work in probation and the criminal justice system when I’m older, but it’s not seen as a ‘woman’s job’ in the Bangladeshi community I’m from."

Another teenager, Ana*, has dreams of growing up to be a lawyer, but says a teacher ridiculed her for this as her family are from Romania and English is her second language.

“If your parents are doctors, you’re much more likely to grow up to be a doctor because you’ve seen that that is attainable," says Amelia.

"Same if your parents are taxi drivers, you’re more likely to grow up to be a taxi driver.

"It’s not about aspiration. It’s about expectation. The expectation of these kids is that they can’t achieve, and so they internalise that.

"This attitude means we are wasting so much talent and will be forever stuck in a class system where kids can’t break out of a life cycle of poverty."

Across Yorkshire, an average of six per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds were classed as NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training) in the most recent data available.

Some of the worst-affected areas include Wakefield, Doncaster and North Yorkshire, where between seven and eight per cent of young people are not studying or in jobs.

But contrary to common belief, child poverty outreach worker Amelia says there is plenty of ambition to go round. Children in areas like Harehills just have to work a "little bit harder".

"Lots of people talk about aspirations and think people don't aspire but what they don't realise is that most young people do have aspirations, it's just that there are a lot of barriers.

"The impact of poverty on young people isn't just physical things like the lack of food, period products or your parents not being able to afford school uniforms; it's the stigma and shame they feel because of the media representation and the way we talk about it.

"We are not here to fight poverty, we are here to reduce the impact of it."

*Some names have been changed