Primrose Hill church becomes ‘safe zone’ for gangs caught in postcode wars

Youth worker Jason Allen with church volunteer Malcolm Craddock at St Mary's Church Primrose Hill. P

Youth worker Jason Allen with church volunteer Malcolm Craddock at St Mary's Church Primrose Hill. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

A church in Primrose Hill has become an unlikely safe zone for rival gang members as it continues to make headway in youth outreach work.

St Mary’s Primrose Hill Church has been using its location in a “neutral gang territory” in Elsworthy Road to encourage youngsters caught up in gang violence to congregate, mix with people from other areas and talk.

As part of its “Eirini” project, running for eight years, it has been providing support to young people at risk of violence.

Malcolm Craddock, churchwarden, said although the project was secular, the church’s location has proved invaluable for bringing those caught up in gang crime together.

“Not many people realise how important it is that members of rival gangs aren’t caught in each other’s area,” he said.

“The young people who come here are able to get to St Mary’s without straying into another gang’s territory, so it’s become a neutral refuge for them.

“Everyone thinks Primrose Hill and the surrounding area is posh but there’s a hidden side to it.

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“Poverty is a real issue and we try to help where we can.”

Camden is one of London’s most polarised boroughs with some of the wealthiest areas in England next to some of the most deprived.

Jason Allen, 27, a former gang member and now youth worker who has been leading the project, said many residents would be surprised at the level of violence in the borough.

“People living in Camden just aren’t aware of what’s happening in their community,” he said.

“They don’t realise that five minutes in any direction there are violent crimes happening, many of them involving young people.

“These people grow up having to constantly look over their shoulder in case they’re attacked.

“They’re forced to memorise car number plates in case someone from another area comes in to cause trouble.

“It’s so bad that I wake up every morning hoping another young person hasn’t lost their life.”

Organising a range of activities, including after-school clubs and mini-breaks, Mr Allen has been helping those caught up in these problems get away from the stresses of daily life.

He was chosen to lead the project because of his first-hand experience of some of the problems faced by the more than 100 young people he tries to help.

“I was myself put in a hostel aged 16,” he explained.

“I had a crack addict sleeping to my right, a prostitute to my left and people injecting heroin in the stairwells. I had to grow up and take care of myself quickly.

“But it also meant I got involved in trouble at a young age.

“I didn’t understand why my life was so difficult so I used to suffer from aggression problems.

“But the youth project was a saviour – it means there’s always someone there to talk to.”