How one Sheffield community is winning the hearts and minds of young people – and steering them away from gangs.
With great transport links, a close-knit and vibrant community, an array of sprawling green spaces and a row of thriving shops, Upperthorpe is a community with a lot going for it.
As you walk through the streets, people seem to be at ease with each other and there is a definite sense of community.
But there is also what Matt Dean, chief executive of Upperthorpe community enterprise Zest, describes as an ‘undercurrent’ of issues around young people becoming involved in gangs and the drugs trade. But, he hastens to add, these are issues affecting a number of communities across the city.
Located in an eye-catching Victorian building at 18 Upperthorpe, the Zest centre boasts two gyms, a swimming pool, library and a number of rooms where members of the community can access everything from mental health workshops, to fitness classes, to computer courses.
Just a few hundred yards away, 23-year-old Aseel Al-Essaie was murdered in a drive-by shooting on Daniel Hill in February last year.
Mr Al-Essaie’s killers Matthew Cohen, 29, Keil Bryan, 32, and Dale Gordon, 33, were jailed for life, each to serve a minimum of 30 years, in April this year after a jury found them unanimously guilty of murder.
As he sent the three men to prison, Justice Stephen Males told Sheffield Crown Court that while the exact motive for the murder was not known, he believed it was ‘overwhelmingly probable it had to do with the supply of drugs’.
Matt says the murder of Mr Al-Essaie, and the subsequent conviction of his killers, has not only devastated many in the community, but has also led to a power vacuum in the hierarchy of people involved in the area’s drug trade.
He said: “In terms of the undercurrent, there’s territory and there’s reputation. And when the fatal shooting happened, from a territory and a reputation point of view, some of that’s about Broomhall and Sharrow, and the interest in Upperthorpe.”
Matt says Zest is committed to providing non-judgemental support, advice, opportunities and activities for young people who are on the periphery of, or who are already involved with, the city’s drugs trade.
“My target isn’t 25-year-old drug dealers, it’s people who are being pulled into it at a young age,” said Matt, adding that many of the young people being pulled in were ‘vulnerable,’ with ‘grooming’ being used to lure some people in.
“You’re more vulnerable when you’re younger, you’re more open to suggestion,” explained Matt.
“The grooming could be that they buy them trainers, put some money in their pocket, buy them some food. And it can be that simple. And if someone treats you well, that builds trust.
Sometimes you might be given something you want.
“It’s less intimidation, and more ‘I can give you something you want, can you do something for me?’.”
An integral part of Zest’s strategy to tackling youth crime is early intervention.
This is done through a number of initiatives including a busy youth club schedule, offering a range of activities, guidance around employment and training opportunities as well as mental health support, all of which are offered for free.
The youth clubs are also held outside the Zest centre at locations such as the Philadelphia estate.
Matt says the fatal shooting made Zest reconsider the work being in done in their youth clubs which has involved some youth clubs being split across gender lines and a more tailored approach to the activities offered in some cases.
He said: “With some of the things we’re doing now, it does feel as though we’re better equipped to deal with, and understand, some of the issues people in the area face.
“We’ve met with parents and spoken to them about how to spot the signs that their young person is becoming involved in gangs.”
Lloyd Samuels is one of the youth workers helping to make a difference with young people in Upperthorpe.
Among the initiatives offered through the youth clubs, which are held on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, is help with employment skills, which people can have on a one-to-one basis if needed.
Lloyd said: “We help young people move from unemployment to employment by taking them through the formalities of work.
“When you’re dealing with young people who have disengaged from school really early, they won’t necessarily have that much of an idea about what work, and being in a work environment, entails, so we help them with that.”
Walkley councillor Neale Gibson said the youth work being done in the area is really helping to make a difference – but added that everyone in the community has their part to play by ensuring they report criminal activity to the police.
He said: “I think people feel worried about reporting crime to the police because they’re worried it will come back on them.
“But people can always report things to Crimestoppers anonymously, they don’t even have to give a name if they go through that channel.”
Coun Gibson added that people in Upperthorpe have a lot of community pride, something he said was helped by the fact they have one of the city’s best parks, The Ponderosa, on their doorstep.
“There aren’t any fences around it, so some people can walk down the steps from their house straight into their park.
“Walkley has some great green spaces and we’re currently looking at whether it might be possible to link them with a walking route.”
Zest is also set to offer a jam-packed summer schedule with a plethora of activities, ranging from an American football session run by players from Sheffield University to water games to a Crookes Valley Park picnic.
Play and activities officer David McNeil said: “We have a range of activities from fun to more educational things involving science. And we’ve also got our normal activities on as well.”