Like most workers in the charity sector, George Henry knew he had a problem when the UK entered lockdown on 23 March. As the targeted interventions manager at the Palace for Life Foundation – Crystal Palace’s charity – Henry uses football to help disadvantaged young people in south London and organises a team of mentors who try to keep them on the straight and narrow.
“Most of them have been arrested or been in gangs and we try to get them into positive outcomes,” he says. “We’re based in schools and a custody suite for our Divert programme, which aims to get them back into employment and training. Around this time of year we usually help with the transition from year six to year seven but because of the lockdown that couldn’t happen.”
With half of Palace for Life’s staff furloughed and only children of key workers attending school, Henry and his mentors quickly realised they needed to find a new way of staying connected.
“For the first couple of weeks we were just checking in with our young people and most of them said they were spending most of the time on their Xbox or PlayStation,” he says. “That was when we thought: ‘I wonder if that can help us continue our work?’”
The foundation has since provided consoles to a number of local families thanks to a partnership with the gaming retailer Go2Games, enabling the mentors to communicate with their young people on a daily basis via the consoles’ chat facility.
“They are learning very quickly if they don’t know already how to play Fifa or Fortnite,” says Mike Summers, the Palace for Life Foundation’s chief executive. “In a normal situation we are encouraging young people to get out and be active but most of the activities aren’t possible. It’s early days but we have had some very promising signs about how young people are responding.”
Almost six weeks after lockdown measures were implemented, however, Henry admits some have taken matters into their own hands. He says one child, who had recently moved to a school in a different borough because he was getting into trouble, ran away from home for a few days.
“We’re dealing with a lot more cases of kids feeling anxiety,” he says. “It’s our job to offer some support in terms of their mental health. But there are a few who are seeing this as an opportunity because they have previously been involved in crime. They think that no one is watching what they are doing and there is no one to stop them going wherever they want in half the time it usually takes.
“We have reminded them about the consequences of their actions: just because you got away with it once that doesn’t mean you will next time. We’ve had a few cases of people saying they are going out to meet their friends but this gives us another chance to emphasise the government’s message that they are putting their own families at risk.
“We’re trying to encourage them to use this time wisely by learning a new skill or finding online courses they might have an interest in. Now at least they have the luxury of time.”
A small number of coaches are still delivering sessions in schools – with physical-distancing rules in force – and the foundation is providing an online healthy eating course for the children to follow.
“Our business model changed overnight,” Summers says. “We are usually out in the community delivering football to children and all of a sudden we couldn’t do most of that. But we still have coaches delivering modified activities in six schools and we are very proud of all of how brave they are all being.
“Young people and particularly those from a more deprived background are really going to struggle as these weeks go on. Often they are in crammed accommodation with no garden, potentially living in environments where everyone is not getting on harmoniously.
“If this goes on for a lot longer then tensions are going to build as young people are missing out on their opportunity to play football or see their friends. There’s a melting pot of problems that could blow up so hopefully programmes like ours can help.”