What is detached youth work?

What is detached work?

A uniform definition for ‘detached youth work’ is a topic that has been the subject of hot debate over the years.  The term ‘detached work’, reported to have first been heard in the UK from the USA in 1955 has come to mean a whole range of interventions outside of a building.  When people talk about street-based work they can be describing very different things ranging from ‘quick fix’ one off sports sessions to targeted crime prevention to longer-term community projects.  As well as more traditional street projects, lots of agencies including health and police, community support services; street pastors and social care agencies claim to be using detached youth work with great success to target ‘hard to reach groups’.

For me, at its simplest, detached youth work is all about engaging young people where they choose to meet; be it a village green, retail-park or an urban housing estate, and working with them to an agreed outcome.  It is about empowering politicising and supporting young people within their community and definitely should not be used as a tool for social control or trying to get ‘kids off the streets’.  Detached youth workers literally enter the ‘space’ occupied by young people, and the dynamics are different to other youth work interventions. The key to success is in the positive relationships built and this requires time, commitment and really good negotiation skills.

All detached work should be planned in consultation with young people to ensure that it really meets their needs.  As such it needs to be paced to match the young people’s engagement and interest in the project and focussed on the issues that they wish to explore, rather than set up to meet another agenda.  If the young people are not interested they will vote with their feet, literally.

Often presented as a modern solution to anti-social behaviour, today’s detached youth workers are actually following in the footsteps of a rich history of creative and effective street-based work. It is certainly worth looking at the work of some of the early pioneers such as T.H. Tarlton (1844) and Maude Stanley (1890), and reflecting on how much the concerns about young people, e.g. teenage pregnancy, alcohol consumption, youth unemployment, fighting have changed over the last 175 years, or not!

So what is the difference between ‘detached’ and ‘outreach’ work? Well, although there are similarities I think that detached is very different to outreach work.  Detached means working where the young people are, and outreach aims to engage with young people and then support them into centre or building-based provision.  A description I often use is to imagine a new bar opening in town. If I am employed to hand out flyers to potential customers and encourage them to come to the bar for a drink then I am doing ‘outreach’ work.  If I am employed to engage with a group of potential customers and support them to set up a satellite bar on the street, then it is detached. Easy!

One of the things I like best about being a detached youth worker is the element of excitement - no two days are likely to be the same. Exciting, funny and at times challenging street workers need to be quick thinking and have a wealth of ideas to keep young people focussed and interested.