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Penned-up emotions

Kids have always hung around bus shelters. The provision of new youth shelters gives this tradition an authoritarian twist

Community safety is booming.Home secretary Jack Straw is demanding more councils implement curfews for under 10 year olds, while in Scotland the latest brainwave from south of the border has come to town - youth shelters. Both curfews and youth shelters are said to help promote public life and social harmony. Unfortunately these initiatives do the opposite.

Based on the Thames Valley Police model, youth shelters are basically 'places to hang out'. They resemble large, open bus shelters and are intended to 'enhance community harmony' - by reducing crime and the antisocial behaviour of young people, while quelling the fear that adults have of young people who would otherwise hang about on the streets.

On the surface, the rationale for these shelters appears fair enough;

adults are sick of youths being antisocial outside their homes, so why not build them a definable place in which to hang out? Adults are safe from kids. Kids are safe from adults.

At the same time - helped by the open design - kids can see and be seen by the police and are therefore made safe from others who may want to cause trouble.

However, while this may sound like a nice idea, to imagine that kids will only hang out in designated areas is a bit unreal. Worse still, the development of initiatives such as youth shelters reflects the fact that any sense of what public space is meant to be, has been lost. A public space made up of curfews and youth shelters is based on a policy of segregation rather than integration - the opposite of the spirit of the age of inclusion.

The type of public space being created by this and many other community initiatives is highly problematic and is predicated on a perception of young people as either yobs or weak victims. Adults, while sometimes being seen as 'irresponsible', especially if they are parents, are also largely seen as victims - of a yob culture - who ultimately can play no active role in regulating the behaviour of the young people who hang out, and so take no part in creating their own public space.

The starting point for the development of these shelters for young people is, in the main, a recognition of 'the problem of youth crime and antisocial behaviour', and also a recognition of the 'fear of crime' - especially among elderly adults.

Tough on crime Youth crime and antisocial behaviour should not be seen as the same thing. While serious crime carried out by young people (such as the stabbing of Damilola Taylor) is thankfully rare, antisocial behaviour - including anything from shouting, swearing, dropping litter and breaking a window - is extremely common and has more to do with adolescent immaturity than criminality and should be dealt with by local adults.

Unfortunately, today, a certain breakdown in community solidarity and a more general loss of trust across society means that the distinction between the two has been lost and many adults now fear young people who do little more than hang about the streets at night. Rather than challenging this exaggerated fear and encouraging adults to regulate young people's behaviour themselves, initiatives such as youth shelters further segregate the young and old and encourage the idea that the two simply cannot mix.

The police may be aware that the fear of crime far outstrips reality, and that for most adults, especially the elderly, the chance of being attacked by a young person is virtually non existent. But the police's myopic obsession with order means that, for them, any new safety initiative is supported.

Politicians and councils, however, have no excuse. In today's world of cultural tolerance, zero tolerance is being shown to young people who hang about the streets and adults are increasingly being encouraged to phone the police if a group of young people are hanging about.

Don't have nightmares Paradoxically, young people are also being seen as victims in need of protection, not only from adults hassling them - but also from other young people. Youngsters, we are told, are more likely to be victims of crime than adults. They too, it is assumed, must be protected from other young people. By giving young people an 'active role' in the design and development of these shelters, it is assumed that their self esteem and confidence to play an active role within their community will be enhanced.

Keeping young people safe from other young people, and keeping adults safe from all potential yobs, the youth shelter is a curious way of developing young people's confidence and enhancing their community participation. In fact, it is more likely to develop frightened, isolated shelterusers whose only 'active community relationship' is with the youth outreach workers employed by the community safety project.

The government's promotion of safety through initiatives such as curfews and youth shelters is not reinvigorating public space but, in Richard Sennett's words, reinforcing the 'fall of public man'.

Stuart Waiton is author of Scared of the Kids: curfews, crime and the regulation of young people, published by Sheffield Hallam University Press For information on Base Leisure's teenage youth shelters e-mail MarkGrace@baseleisure. com

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