Youth workers Charlene Heng and Philip Ong say they have been stared at by hostile-looking youths when they talk to other young people at a hawker centre or coffeeshop. 

Special programme helps YouthReach identify those involved in gang-related activities

YouthReach, a Church-run youth service agency, is now working with the police to reach out to young people involved in street gangs.

The organisation, a joint outreach project of Catholic Welfare Services and Boys’ Town, started conducting the government-funded Streetwise Programme (SWP) in November.

The six-month long programme includes counselling, life skills, career guidance, and recreation and social programmes to help delinquent youths start life afresh.

Prior to this, YouthReach was conducting its own Street Outreach programme in Tampines, where the agency is located. It stopped this programme last October after six months.

The youth workers realised that “it was not easy to just walk around, sit down and say ‘hi’ to them [the youths]” due to the youths’ mobility,” said YouthReach’s senior social worker Charlene Heng.

The youths might not always be at the same location; thus the youth workers may not be able to follow up with the same group of people.

Change of strategy

“The change of strategy is to work with the police for the police to straight away refer [the youth] to us,” said Ms Heng.

This would better help YouthReach identify youths needing help, she added.

However, YouthReach hopes to go one step further by reaching out to the friends of the youths who are not referred. “It becomes more sharing the workers’ own life experiences.

Many of the youths involved in gang-related activities are usually around 13 to 18 years of age, although Ms Heng said that now youths as young as 11 are at risk.

One factor is boredom. Youths who loiter around aimlessly could get into trouble, she said. “Once a person gets bored, he will always think of funny things. It’s only a matter of time.”

However, reaching out to these people is not easy.

‘Coffeeshop talk’

The workers try to engage in what Ms Heng’s colleague, youth social worker Philip Ong, describes as “coffeeshop talk”
– chatting about everything that the youths are interested in, or sharing the workers' own life experiences.

However, the young people usually do not open up after just one or two drinks and are often suspicious that the workers are obtaining information for the police.

Mr Ong added that the youth workers keep an open mind and try not to correct the young people on the spot if they hear of something the youths did wrong.

While the workers have not been verbally abused or chased away, Ms Heng said that they have been stared at by hostile-looking youths when they talk to other young people at a hawker centre or coffeeshop.

Despite Mr Ong being Catholic and Ms Heng being Protestant, they do not evangelise the youth. However the workers make it known that their organisation is a joint project of Catholic Welfare Services and Boys’ Town.

Recent violence

Commenting on the recent spate of youth violence in Singapore, Ms Heng said that this is “nothing new under the sun”.

Public interest in those attacks is probably due to them being carried out at public places where families gather, said Mr Ong.

All it takes is a “staring incident” followed by a subsequent quarrel to spark such an attack, he added.

YouthReach’s Streetwise Programme is coordinated by the National Youth Council in partnership with the Juvenile Courts, Singapore Police Force, Singapore Prison Service, and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

Four other agencies are also running the programme.

By Darren Boon
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