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Urban Hope - Islington

Urban Hope is the youth project of St Stephen’s Church, Canonbury, Islington, which has an electoral roll of 115 and an average Sunday morning attendance of 70. Members of the church are mostly local residents but it is a varied area: some who are very poor live side by side with much wealthier people who bring some resources. Those in the middle income range have largely been squeezed out.

St Stephen’s has a strong tradition of lay leadership. “The values guiding our life together are:

· Diversity and inclusion - we are a diverse group of people with shared interests and many differences. We think this is special and to be valued, so we aim to welcome, include and involve everyone, investing time and effort in building healthy relationships and desiring unity as the body of Christ.

· Theological and liturgical breadth - our worship is informed by many traditions and is, in style, often as diverse as the members of our eclectic community.

· Practically demonstrated love, especially for the marginalised. We seek to engage with issues of social justice locally and globally, and build mutually supportive relationships with others engaged in God’s mission throughout the world.

· Risk-taking and an openness to explore new ideas, to dialogue, to reflect theologically, and to use our imaginations creatively. We think this is a good way to grow.

· Commitment to learning and growing as followers of Jesus, seeking to develop the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit and reach our unique potential as we journey with God and each other, recognising this is not always easy or comfortable, but is life-affirming and good news.”

Urban Hope flows from the desire to be actively loving to the community in which we live, especially those in particular need. Islington has the second highest rate of child poverty in London (42%). It is the 4th most deprived borough in London and the 8th most deprived in England. Crime rates are almost double the national average. 1 in 9 children aged 11-16 has a mental health problem, over a third higher than the national average. In Canonbury, small pockets of wealth tend to mask some of the highest levels of deprivation, but 40% of young people are eligible for free school meals. Most people live in flats and over half the child population lives in public sector rented accommodation; of these, 38% live in overcrowded conditions.

Origins of Urban Hope

The church already ran a very successful homelessness/soup kitchen/drop-in project run by a community development worker. This is still going and has expanded. But about 17 years ago it was recognised that there was a need to work with marginalised young people. There was a high level of violence in the area, murders and turf wars between gangs.

The current senior youth worker, who had been working with the YMCA, wanted to move into a church setting in London and had advertised himself in the Church of England newspaper. He was initially recruited to St Stephen’s in return for accommodation and pocket money. He has now become the Senior Youth Worker. He was to work with young people outside the church though there was probably an assumption at the time that they would then join the church.

At first, it was primarily stories from the existing community work that underlined the needs of young people. This sort of feedback and listening to local residents has continued to be important; for example, showing the need for work with teenage parents. The emphasis on relationships means that there is less need for more formal consultations. In addition, Urban Hope is well networked into other groups and public services and therefore has access to statistical data about the area, such as Census data and the Indices of Deprivation. There is no statutory youth provision in the area in the area where Urban Hope focuses most of its work.

Urban Hope activities

Urban Hope began 16 years ago. Its aim is to work in partnership with young people to enable their personal development and to work towards transforming the local community into a place full of opportunities and stories of success. The aim is to encourage and support young people to:

· participate in community life
· be employed or in education
· build and maintain positive relationships
· have a strong sense of well-being and self-esteem
· have a reasoned understanding of their values and beliefs
· develop a variety of life-skills
· make informed choices related to their health
· have the skills to find and access support services e.g. health, employment, finance.

Urban Hope seeks to meet the needs of young people by:

· running positive activities;
· creating safe spaces;
· developing life skills;
· initiating purposeful relationships;
· providing personal support and signposting;
· inspiring spirituality;
· promoting hopeful communities;
· offering positive role models.

Urban Hope helps them fight social exclusion and access better opportunities; acts as advocates for them and their families when dealing with social workers, exclusion from school, educational choices or challenges such as teenage pregnancy. It signposts young people to counselling services, arranges work experience placements, and liaises with police and other professionals on their behalf. There is a focus on increasing opportunities for young people from minority ethnic backgrounds, particularly those of African and Turkish heritage.

One priority is enabling young people, as well as families and other residents, to participate in their community. Intergenerational projects and community events help to celebrate life in the local area and promote a shared sense of purpose and belonging.

The work is carried out on a foundation of trusting relationships, built across cultural and economic barriers. Volunteers such as lawyers and graphic designers are enabled to get to know members of their community whom they would not otherwise meet, so that they can inspire and learn from those very different from them. By working with small groups, young people can receive focused attention and actively participate in the running of their project. Relationships with young people are built to last many years.

Most staff youth workers and volunteers live in the community, and have been working with local young people and their families for many years, achieving a track record in excellent community provision.

Project values and ethos

· Person centred: we start with the needs of the young people we have contact with. We are motivated by them and their needs. Although we are informed by community work trends and statutory targets, these are never our starting point.

· Flexibility and variety – in recognition of ‘the individual’. Often those who are marginalised cannot be engaged with using a ‘one size fits all’ approach to youth work.

· Relational: we prioritise the building of relationships between youth workers and young people above all else. Our experience shows that to prioritise relationship above task and programme facilitates the personal and social development of young people.

· Safe places: safety is an important concern of many young people in our community. Young people often feel unsafe in public places, sighting parks, and main roads are places where they feel at risk. We provide young people with safe, warm and friendly place. Our purpose built centre provides an alternative to the street and is where young people are welcomed, encouraged, supported and challenged. It is a place of creativity and learning, exploration and fun.”

The theology is driven by the concept of Shalom with the emphasis on connectedness (cf Walter Brueggemann who introduces shalom by observing that in the Bible, “all of creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature”.)

A key feature of Urban Hope is that it has steered clear of accepting commissions from the local authority or others. Although it does a lot of partnership work, it has retained its independence and flexibility. It is not tied to other people’s targets or output or outcome measures. It can try new things and, if they fail, move on.

Continuing development

The project has changed and developed over time. The first five years in particular represented a massive learning experience for the youth worker and the church. At first, they ran an open youth club, but that was ‘disastrous’ and they ran some warehouse style raves. They began to do community profiles, honed skills and developed different ways of working. In 2000, there was a shift from being a Church that employed a youth worker to the formation of a Youth Work Project. They began to build relationships with young people on the street and early on there was detached youth work with 8 and 9 year old boys, playing football with them etc., then creating youth club sessions for them, developing a football team and taking them on visits to the countryside. They have now worked with the same approximately 30 boys for about 10 years, supporting them in many ways and always being on call for them and their families. Through this, they built up relationships with many of the key people in the local community and they as well as church members recognised the value of the work.

They now work with around 300 young people per year, with a core group of 60-80 each week in the 8 – 20 years age group. Some of these young people themselves become volunteers and do a young leaders’ programme.

The primary focus is on relationships between young people and adults. In other words, the work is not driven by activities. There is a lot of one-to-one work and they operate on an extended family model, the hub of which is the ‘living room’, a specially created area of the premises. Activities are then built onto relationships as appropriate. For example, there can be specialist help given through mentoring if a young person is interested in a particular career. The wide range of volunteers come from interesting backgrounds and become role models. Increasingly there has been work with parents who ask for help. There is also a lot of inter-generational work, focusing less on the extremes of age and more on the middle ground. They run community days, bonfire parties, etc.

Over the past four years, there has been a particular focus on work with young women, recognising that they had been neglected. Now, 51% of project users are girls and a staff member is employed to work with them. In addition, the staff from the local Children’s Centre support sessions in Urban Hope.

One of the changes over the years has been in the attitude of church members who have come to understand the work as more than a simplified process of evangelism.

Organisation of Urban Hope

Urban Hope is run by a Management Committee that is a sub-committee of the PCC. It is chaired by the Self-Supporting (non-stipendiary) Minister of St Stephen’s. The Committee meets quarterly. Members are encouraged to take an interest in some specific aspect of the project, such as finance, buildings, volunteering. The Senior Youth Worker provides a monthly report to the Committee and the Committee reports annually to the PCC. There are now 2.5 staff members: two youth workers and a part-time social worker for those at risk of harm and young parents.

Urban Hope does not have independent charitable status but uses that of St Stephen’s Church. The Self-Supporting Minister was important in driving the vision in the early days of the project and she has provided continuity through changes of incumbent. Similarly the continuity provided by the (now) Senior Youth Worker has been important.


Much of the early funding came from CUF: for the first five years when it was a Church youth project and after that when it became Urban Hope.

Costs this year amount to c£100K of which the church donates £15k, a further £15k comes from individual donations and the balance from grant making trusts, including BBC Children in Need, Cripplegate Foundation, a variety of City Livery Companies and the Church Urban Fund. As well as the direct contribution from St Stephen’s, Urban Hope benefits from not having to pay rent and having some other potential costs absorbed by the Church.

At present the project is financially secure for the next 12 months.


There has always been a heavy reliance on volunteers, most though not all of them from within the church community. Using the hourly rate of the London Living Wage, it is estimated that volunteers contribute approximately £365 of time per week.

Other support

The relationship with the diocese is through Clair Cook at The Children’s Society. Support from Area Bishops has varied depending on the person in office. Ecumenical links are good locally and there are good relations with other churches and faith groups in the area. There is some partnership working with local authority youth workers.

On the whole, probably Urban Hope has contributed to others:

· It has often been used as an example of the Diocesesan/The Children’s Society youth strategy.
· The Senior Youth Worker contributed as a practitioner to The Faith of Generation Y and has been used its author Bob Mayo to give talks.
· It takes students from Centre for Youth Ministry and Senior Youth Worker tutors others.

A few years ago there was some involvement with the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns. The Committee paid for the Senior Youth Worker to visit Los Angeles to attend the Urban Youth Work Institute’s Annual Conference.

Linked with other projects or organisations

The primary links are with St Stephen’s Church and the Diocese/TCS, but the work is consistent with the aims of ‘One Canonbury’ (neighbourhood management), whose Youth Sub-Group is chaired by Urban Hope’s senior youth worker. Urban Hope represents the community on the Canonbury Safer Neighbourhood Panel and have excellent relationships with local youth agencies and Social Services. There are also strong partnerships with Connexions workers at Pulse, City YMCA’s sexual health clinic, The Drum, and Islington Young People’s Drug and Alcohol Service.


The primary desired outcomes are also the aims of the project:

· positive relations between community members
· young people choosing to have a positive relationship with them
· affecting their lives for the better.

There are some indications of success. Most young people they are in contact with are in education, employment or training (comparing well with wider NEET figures). Some are coming off drugs. Young parents are keeping their children. Some young people have been the first in their family to go to university.

Key success factors

· Being clear about what they can and cannot do, but also being able to signpost other services, such as Connexions, counselling.

· Longevity – having been there for 16 years. It took 10 years to be accepted and exert influence. For example, they ‘petitioned, campaigned and badgered’ about the local park, which was littered with needles and generally avoided as hazardous, and got it cleaned up and turned round so that it is now a safe place for families.

· Living in the area in a council flat – able to identify with and understand the frustrations of local residents.

· Flexibility – being able to adapt because not tied down to contracts. “You can’t practise relationships in a formulaic way.”

Main barriers

· Initially, it was church expectations that the work would result in more young people in the pews.

· There has been some resistance to working with them (e.g. by the local authority) or funding them (some grant giving trusts) because of a perceived ‘religious’ agenda.

· Some local people are still suspicious of them because of this.

· Being confronted by large groups of angry young people.

· Funding – though financially alright at present.

Challenges and opportunities for the future

· How to inform the wider field of youth ministry/youth work: Urban Hope has tried to hold the two (which are distinct) in tension which can evoke suspicion from both sides.
· Recruitment of staff: it is very hard to find good people.
· The major challenge is to meet the enormous needs of local young people.

More generally, it would be good to have ‘space’ for people like Urban Hope staff to meet and network – possibly a national retreat for urban youth workers.

Ben Bell