By Danielle Aumond
Making my way through winding turns of tower blocks, I navigate towards a small office tucked away underneath the A40 flyover. I have an appointment with one of St.Giles Trust’s clients.
Sheriff is 16 years old. He came out of prison three months ago. This time around it was for ABH (actual bodily harm). He’s been ‘away’ twice before this sentence or ‘bird’ as he calls it.
“I was involved in a gang in West London, which I joined when I was 13-years old. I didn’t see it as a gang. It was more like a group of friends that I got along with,” Sheriff explains.
“We used to hang around together, bunk school together initially. Then we started taking part in robberies, and smoking weed. Mainly going to other schools and starting trouble with their pupils. In some ways I was protected by my older brother. He didn’t allow me around the older guys his age group, so I’d mainly be with guys my own age.”
Despite his brother’s efforts and positive reports from Sheriff’s college, he still ended up getting excluded from school and received a custodial sentence for attempted robbery.
“2012 was bad for me. I was given a custodial sentence for my first conviction, which created a negative cycle for me. This made me give up on my education. At the time, I was studying ‘Public Services’ to become a paramedic. When I came out [of prison] probation told me it’s going to be extremely difficult for me to work with young and vulnerable people because I’ve got violence on my record.”
Another consequence was souring relations with his parents. After his release, Sheriff stayed with his parents for only a month before becoming homeless following domestic disputes.
“My parents let me back (home) on the condition that I didn’t get into any more trouble; that I behaved myself and went to school,” he explains. “I don’t get along with my Dad because he believed the police about my first offence. My parents weren’t born here, they are what I would describe as ‘old school’, too strict. I was 15 years of age at the time, and they wanted me to be at home for 7pm every evening.”
Fractured relationships with family members and lack of support lead to Sheriff becoming homeless and having several brushes with the law. He confides that his lowest point was when his older brother was stabbed whilst he was in custody: “It was a couple of days before my birthday. I called my mum from prison and she was telling me about the incident and then my credit ran out (imagine that).
I felt guilty, because he only came back home to our area to visit me in prison with my family”, says Sheriff pausing for a moment to process the incident. “He got stabbed in an alleyway near there the next day, and apparently the people that stabbed him thought he was me.”
The St Giles SOS team began working with Sheriff in March of this year. The project works predominantly with 16-24-year olds at risk of offending and ‘gang involvement’ but the West London office I’m visiting caters for clients as young as 13 if they are considered particularly ‘high risk’.
“Things have been turning around since I began working with St. Giles,” says Sheriff, with a rare smile creeping into play. “They haven’t judged me when I made mistakes, they just helped me. After I came out of prison, whilst I was still on license, I was arrested for possession of an offensive weapon and cannabis. My case worker came to court and organised for me to receive a suspended sentence rather than going back to prison.”
Sheriff has since received help with his housing, training and skills, making a CV and job searches as well as being able to begin to build positive relationships with his peers and staff within the SOS project. He has also received help with housing.
“At one point, I was staying in a homeless centre full of alcoholics. We had to share a room and I wasn’t comfortable staying there. I explained this to my SOS case worker, and then within two to three days he organised an interview with the supported hostel where I’m staying now. I now feel safe where I’m staying and I feel more stable emotionally because I’ve got somewhere semi-permanent to live. It’s the best thing that’s happened since they’ve been working with me. It’s helped me to keep my nose clean. St. Giles are also helping me to look at my long-term housing options.”
When he entered the project Sheriff’s self-esteem was severely battered. Through one-to-one sessions with his case worker, his confidence and self-esteem began to be repaired. He explains: “I would think that some things are just not possible for me, such as having somewhere safe to live, but they would help me to see that they were.”
Sheriff has started to dream big again and think about his future. “I realise that I need to get a job for the short-term to (just to get paid really),” he says. “But in the long-term, I want to have my own garage for cars and motorbikes. I also want to open a construction company.”
Sheriff has been enrolled onto Construction Safety Certificate (CSC) training through St. Giles, allowing him to work on a construction sites.
St. Giles Trust have an ethos of taking on ex-offenders as both volunteers and paid staff, and with a recent political focus on the problem of street gangs, they are in a prime position to provide solutions. Who better to walk someone through the road of rehabilitation and recovery than someone who’s been through it themselves?
For Sheriff this is definitely a big selling point: “It makes it easier for us (as clients) to relate to them. They treat us (the clients) with respect,” he says. As a result, Sheriff himself wants to volunteer with St. Giles in the coming months, to give other clients a piece of what he’s received. “They are a helpful organisation. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to better their lives from crime to seeing the bigger picture in the real world. I feel like I have more hope now. ”
To find out more about St Giles visit their website
* Name, locations and circumstances have been changed to protect identities.