“Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a really serious incident outside, between two drug gangs. We were forced into a full lockdown of the building. A car was set on fire. That’s just one example of what these young people are up against. We provide a safe haven, they come in here, respect each other and respect us. It’s almost like a family.”
Talking to Amanda Naylor is nothing short of inspiring. As CEO of Manchester Youth Zone [MYZ], she has responsibility for one of the most vital community assets in the city. A facility incorporating everything from climbing walls to therapeutic services, basketball courts to career and enterprise hubs, boxing rings to mental health support.
Primarily aimed at young people in central north Manchester, doors are open for anyone up to 19 years old, 25 for those with learning disabilities, with every kid who walks through the entrance given a free meal (although those who can pay a 50p contribution in return). Additional assistance is also available to parents who are struggling.
This is before we come to in-community activities, whether that’s putting youth workers in urban parks to help safeguard those at risk, or on Metrolink trams to help those who can’t afford fares to pay for their journey, in turn avoiding fines.
“You only need to spend a couple of hours in the company of our kids to feel recharged. Before Boris Johnson coined the phrase, we were saying that talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not,” Naylor replies when we ask what motivates MYZ staff given the clearly challenging nature of their work. "These kids are funny, smart, savvy, know how to navigate life, they have great communication skills, are very grateful, appreciative, mindful and supportive.”
MYZ marks its tenth birthday this year, and over the past decade Naylor estimates more than 15,000 children have passed through the operation and benefited from stability, security, guidance, and opportunities as a result. She’s been here far less time, although the story of how she ended up here speaks volumes about who she is, not least in terms of dedication to causes that are aimed squarely at those who have been failed by safety nets, systems and services in a UK that’s increasingly forgetting the ethics its post-war recovery and identity were built on.
“I was at Barnado’s, and was seconded to a project looking at how the voluntary sector could reach the most vulnerable children during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner had identified around 1.4million kids that needed additional support, and once the lockdowns hit they immediately became the most vulnerable,” Naylor tells us, recounting how many of these young people were experiencing sharp declines in their mental health, problems accessing the education everyone is entitled to, digital poverty’, and — particular in the case of Black and Asian families, those living in multi-generational households, social accommodation or overcrowded homes — disproportionately high levels of bereavement. “In the end we’d reached 100,000 children and from that it came out that north Manchester was the area with the most needs in the country.
“I mean, 25% more Covid deaths than the national average… in general, children in the city were out of school more than any other party of the country, with Manchester going through multiple Tier 3 lockdowns,” she continues. “So I realised what made a real difference was organisations sitting in the community, those that knew which doors to knock on, had the trust of the families in the area, and genuinely helped young people to thrive. I wanted to lead an organisation like that, and MYZ ticked all the boxes. We’re based in Harpurhey, and this part of the city has never really had the regeneration other areas have. A lot of children from here — Moston, Higher Blackley, Newton Heath, Charlestown, Miles Platting – they don’t even see themselves as coming from Manchester. They’re from Harpurhey, or the district where they live.”
If that sounds confusing allow us to recount one of MYZ’s most recent excursions. Taking a group of children to the glass, steel and big business world of Spinningfields, and up to the 16th floor of an office tower, Naylor recounts how one kid asked if they were looking out on London, despite only being a few miles down the road from their home. After explaining the view was central Manchester, another simply replied: ‘That’s not my Manchester’. A clear sign of how disparate the two sides of the city have become in the boom era that has simultaneously transformed our hometown’s aesthetics and economy, while leaving vast swathes of the population behind.
“In terms of deprivation, I think it’s just got worse in North Manchester over the past ten years. The biggest employers are the hospital and college. There’s no industry, there’s no business. And Manchester Youth Zone has really suffered because of that, in terms of getting business support and funding. We’ve been able to reach out to the city and say North Manchester is Manchester too. It’s important that you don’t forget these kids… One of our biggest successes really has been working in partnerships with businesses and entering into partnerships with businesses that fund areas of our work. This helps them align with their Environmental Social Governance requirements — as profit-making agencies they are expected to prove how they are giving back to the community,” Naylor tells us. “With Metrolink, for example, it’s about making transport safer for them, and making sure children can actually get to us safely.
“Others, like High Finance 24-7, are funding our careers and enterprise hubs, to really offer routes into employment for kids. And we start really young, getting them to buy into work. They can easily say ‘there’s nowhere to work, I might as well sell drugs’. We hear that from 10 and 11 year olds. What we’re doing is trying to create a kind of family firm. Because they don’t have a family firm, with someone close to them who might offer work experience,” she continues. “For our tenth birthday we are now asking for ten organisations to commit to giving us £10,000, which will help sustain our future for another ten years — this work has never been more needed. So far we’ve got seven signed up, so we’re still looking for three more. Of course, if there are more then we’ll gladly accept another ten partners, we’re not fussed!”
Anyone questioning how desperate times are actually becoming need only consider the food packages MYZ regularly sends kids home with. Alongside edibles and drinkables, these emergency supplies also include washing powder, washing up liquid and toothpaste. Hardly luxury items by any stretch of the imagination, Naylor tells us she’s seen a number of recipients brought to tears because they’d gone for weeks without in a bid to keep shopping bills within their increasingly-stretched budgets. The cost of living crisis laid bare, tragically such situations have been going on far longer than the current inflationary nightmare.
Despite such clear and profound needs, one of the reasons MYZ’s private sector partnerships are so vital right now is the shocking state of public funding for youth services of all kinds. With audible emotion in her voice — not to mention frustration — Naylor paints a picture of what can only be described as policy-driven neglect, with around £1.4billion earmarked by central government to pay for youth services in 2012, compared with just £700million today. Putting this into context, it costs around £1.4million annually to keep the doors at MYZ open alone.