Just off Coldharbour Lane in South London's Lambeth neighborhood, a group of men are standing around at the mouth of an alley, steps from an 10-foot high steel gate being manned by three people.
In other parts of this neighborhood, these images might be ominous. But above the gate are letters spelling out "Love." The walls are painted with images of peacocks and trees, an explosion of warm colors that assure the children streaming into the Kids Company support center that this is a safe haven. Inside, children are eating hot meals, sculpting clay figures and playing games together. Adults are reading to them, or showing them how to use a computer.
"For a lot of our kids, this their last resort," said Derrick "Anthony" Mitchell, the duty manager at Kids Company who said he once ran with a gang.
The center was started 11 years ago by Camila Batmanghelidjh, a psychotherapist who mortgaged her own home to start the organization and keep it going. An overwhelming percentage of the kids who visit have come on their own, hearing about the program through word of mouth. Many of them have trouble getting a meal at home, or may not even have a home, and have been exposed to or involved with gang violence.
Mitchell said the challenges are nothing new to London's impoverished neighborhoods. He sold drugs, and lost a family member to violence at age 19 when his sister bled to death after being stabbed in the leg. He says the problems are only recently emerging to the forefront.
But Zievrina Wilson, the center manager for Kids Company, said she's seen a shift in the recent years. On Nov. 5, she said she was riding on a city bus when a bullet crashed through the window, nearly missing her head. At the center, newspaper clippings of three teens who lost their lives to violence are posted in a dimly-lit alcove.
In recent years, headlines in the national papers have been dominated by stories about youth violence, including a rise in shootings and a spate of stabbings that claimed the lives of school-age children. Stories were picked up by the media about parents equipping their young children with body armor as a precaution. With a homicide rate of only 2 per 100,000 people, killings of teens still cause national outrage, though some worry that the flurry of news stories is making the public numb to the problem.
"They go to schools in failing areas, there's not any aspirations, and the teachers don't care," Wilson said. "No one fights anymore. Kids are shooting each other over post codes because they have nothing else to aspire to. It's a mask, so no one can hurt them again."
Wilson said Kids Company is about "empowering young people, by any means necessary." On one corner of the building, volunteer Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, is watching kids fiddle on computers. In the next room, a 9-year-old girl has made a whimsical half-human, half-animal creature out of clay. “Lots of people tell me I’m good,” the girl says of her art. And in the back, 17-year-old Kayann Lewis is singing an original song and strumming a guitar inside a fully functional music studio.
What appears to be a thriving after-school center is actually much more, said David Gustave, an educational motivator. Kids are screened at the outset, and are offered therapy and counseling. Some need guidance to find housing or work their way back into school, all of which the group can assist with.
“Young people carry a lot of stuff – they’re victims, really,” Gustave said. “Through loving and stable relationships, they can get gain empathy and trust. The kind of things we take for granted.”