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Since early this year, we’ve been watching the situation unfold with the pandemic’s lasting effects, political uncertainty, energy crisis and cost of living. Blackburn and Darwen is a deprived area. Prior to the pandemic 37% of young people in the area lived in poverty, this figure is now 49%, and we know families aren’t on the highest incomes. With costs rising, we knew this would lead to many struggling more than they were already. Anticipating the issues hurtling towards us, we had to act urgently to respond to the needs we could see coming down the line.
We know our services are needed more than ever, as membership and attendance has increased normally we see a 10% increase in demand on our services over the winter however this year we are predicting closer to 40% . For our young people, the support we offer ensures we meet their basic needs; food, warmth, hygiene and safeguarding. All things that no young person should ever have to worry about.
To help, we’re offering free membership, free entry, and free meals as well as upscaling our health and wellbeing support in every session. The uptake, particularly for free hot meals, has been phenomenal. Young people are coming for seconds, even third helping. It’s an anxious time, and young people know parents and carers are struggling. Youth workers can have trusted, open conversations over a meal to understand what’s going on for that young person; it could be that they haven’t eaten that day, or they don’t know where their next meal will come from, and some take food home for their siblings.
When household and money pressures take priority, it makes it difficult for parents/carers to have the space for young people’s worries, which is understandable but sad to see and can have detrimental effects. We recognise our role to safeguard young people, ensuring they are being looked after and families are supported. As a result, we’re increasingly linking up with other services, like mental health and social services. In an average month we are referring 12 young people to specialist services to receive the right support that they need.
Young people aren’t only coming to the Youth Zone for warm spaces and free food. They’re coming to access free WIFI so they can do their homework or to access one-to-one support. Because of the current circumstances, young people are not getting the chance to be young, and are having to grow up quicker. Many are putting their families first, to the detriment of their education. Once they hit 16, they want part-time jobs to support at home, so engaging in school is just not a priority.
As a Network, we need to continue to be there to enrich young people’s lives. To be somewhere families and young people can rely on. But Youth Zones and their teams are feeling the pinch too. Our rise in energy bills is the equivalent to us paying eight youth workers. At Blackburn & Darwen Youth Zone we have over 4,500 members, some who access the Youth Zone four or five times a week. If we could not deliver, the pressure would be put on other local services.
We rely on communities and the power of people who care coming together. It’s been incredible to see how local businesses continue to support during this tough time. They care about the town and see it as a long-term investment. They want to see young people who live in Blackburn and Darwen stay in the area – after all they’re the next leaders in the borough.
We’re only at the start, and the long-lasting legacy this crisis could cause is a real worry. One constant is that at the Youth Zone young people will always have youth workers to talk to, someone who can be there as a role model and guide them.
Fahima Iqbal, Universal Service Manager, Blackburn & Darwen Youth Zone