Their Offices in Their Backpacks, Youth Workers Walk the Neighbourhood to Find Kids Who Need Them

On the corner of Annesley Avenue, Kelly Caffrey opens a bag with plain white socks and T-shirts and ready-made tie-dye ink in a rainbow of colours.

Two girls grab colours and begin to wrap elastic bands around the socks. In the skies above, the sun has come out.

“I know how you do them,” says Tori Lee Myles, aged 11, as she pours yellow ink onto the sock. “You do this and then you do this.”

She needs red ink too, she says. Her socks will be the colour of sunsets.

Caffrey and her colleague Noel Smith have met Tori and her friend before. Every day, the “detached” youth workers pull on their bright blue jackets and walk around the neighbourhood chatting with the young people they meet.

Sometimes they run activities such as tie-dyeing, painting or football. Other times they stop just to say hi, to get to know whoever they pass, and to start a conversation.

Blue jackets on the street are a sign that Tori likes, she says. It means something fun is going to happen. What’ll she make next? “Tie-dye bicycle shorts.”

Caffrey takes a card out of her backpack with the number for the SWAN Youth Service, so Tori can go along in future to the activities they run not far away on Dunne Street in the north inner-city.

Smith and Caffrey’s job is to get to know hard-to-reach young people in the north-east inner-city, those who may not know about the SWAN service and may need their support – perhaps now, perhaps sometime in the future.

“That there was a nice piece of work where the kids got to do something, bring something home, and be that age,” said Caffrey as the girls scoot away with their new clothes. “And not be exposed to anti-social behaviours, or anything like that.”

An Office in a Backpack

On average, the team meets young people 83 times a week, mapping the same area and loosely tracking young people who need support.

“Our office is our backpack,” says Aoife O’Regan, the project leader in the detached youth workers team.

Says Caffrey: “Some may be wary of us unless we have something to offer.”

For those in their late teens, that could be support in education or work. Others may present with more complex situations, facing homelessness say, or with mental health difficulties.

Many of the young people may not ask for support at home, even if it’s there, for whatever reason, says Caffrey, so they “come to us as a different role. They see the blue jackets, and they approach if we have a relationship.”

It’s simple sometimes, Smith says. “But it’s huge to the people you’re supporting.”

There’s hostile parts, but people shouldn’t think the work is about that, he says. “People see the drama first, because of the area it is and the name it has, people want to see that side of it first.”

Youth work is a means to an end, says Angela Hart, another detached youth worker, and the purpose is building bridges.

“It’s only when you have the conversation that you realise they really didn’t know how to take that step,” she says.

Jade Delaney, who lives around the corner from the SWAN Youth Service, came across Hart on the street in her blue jacket while she was a teenager.

She was introduced to them, took part in activities and went on trips around the country.

When she left school, she didn’t have direction in her life, she says. Hart helped her put together a CV, and write college applications. She had thought further education was too expensive for her, she says.

Says Hart: “What that’s doing for their confidence and everything, it’s fabulous. It’s about being on the journey with them and hand holding, until they realise, ‘I can do this.’”

A Little Tool

The daily route takes them by Portland Place, to the football and basketball courts where teenagers often hang out.

“It’s about meeting young people where they’re at. That firstly means in their physical space,” says O’Regan, the project leader.

“How are ye lads, are ye alright?” says Smith to two boys near the football court. They nod back.

Smith’s policy is to say hello to everybody. “Because you’re making yourself visible, aren’t you? It’s always about consistency.”

“We’re around tomorrow with a few balls if yous want to play a game,” he says to a group of boys at the courts.

He repeats the offer, making sure he’s said it loud enough for each boy to hear.

SWAN Centre workers out and about. Photo by Claudia Dalby.

Building a relationship can depend on the young person’s personality, said O’Regan. When young people are quiet or disengaged, Smith makes a bigger effort, he says.

Running activities helps to spark conversations and build relationships. “Then you have a connection, you have an in. It’s just a little tool,” says Smith.

Smith says he needs to be fit for activities like this. “It’s not in the job description. It says be flexible, it doesn’t say yoga flexible,” he laughs.

He never wants to let the young people win matches for the sake of it. “That’s not empowering. I’ll teach them to do it, but I won’t let them win just to feel good about themselves.”

With a relationship, they can begin to do work that would make a difference in young people’s lives.

“You can drive them in a different direction. You can, that’s a fact,” says Smith.

“The follow-up is key,” says O’Regan. “The young people have to trust that you’ll be back when you say you will.”

Always a Challenge

O’Regan says you need self-confidence to be out on the streets. “You have to be very self-aware, and have really good self-care practices, to build up your own resilience.”

She says: “The last thing you want to do is experience vicarious trauma, from hearing other people’s issues.”

Hart has been a detached youth worker for 15 years. She applied for a job with SWAN Youth Service, and was offered one in the then small detached youth work program.

It’s different to regular youth work, says Hart.

In-house youth workers can discuss codes of conduct with young people, and there is an understanding that there will be consequences for actions.

Detached youth workers can’t draw up rules of behaviour in the same way.

As a detached youth worker, they are in the young people’s territory, says Hart.

The aim is to target hard-to-reach young people, who wouldn’t normally approach the service.

“You walk the streets because the young people allow you,” says Hart. “We have to be mindful of that.”

Detached youth work can be very intimidating, she says. “I don’t think it is for everybody.”

“I would have seen a lot of things. Knives, guns, suicides, bullying,” says Hart. “But there’s great respect as well when you build the relationships.”

Smith said he has learned to have thick skin. “I would be thinking, ‘Did I do enough, was it me?’” he says. “You realise afterwards, a lot of the time, it’s where they’re at at certain stages of their life.”

Society has failed the young people affected by poverty and a lack of educational supports, he says. “In my eyes, that’s the reality.”

Sometimes, on the street, young people will disclose serious or intense parts of their lives, he says.

He once coaxed a young person from the side of a bridge and spent the week getting them connected with support networks and medical help. “It’s always a challenge.”

Then there’s another day when they just play a game of ball on the pitch, he says. “And they’re laughing, and it’s a breath of fresh air just to see people happy and engaging in something so simple.”

When the project started, it had two part-time workers.

“It was much more difficult. You’d leave issues, and the next Monday, things might have significantly worsened,” said Hart.

Now it gets funding from the Dublin North East Inner City programme and the team of five are on the streets six days a week, bank holidays and over the Christmas period.

They’re still trying to secure core funding for next year, says O’Regan. “We work our hardest to make sure no one falls through the net, and I think we’re fairly successful.”

Some days are quiet and on others, their blue jackets will draw so many people, says Caffrey. “No two days are the same.”

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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