Streetwork: Helping Kids in Krakow's Roughest Neighbourhood

Article published on April 14, 2014
Article published on April 14, 2014

Growing up is a complex matter in any part of the world. So what happens to those who come from troubled families, kids who cannot rely on their family and whose only guidance comes from the streets? In Krakow a team of professionally trained workers are showing young people that there is an alternative to life on the streets.

A tall, blonde teenage boy en­ters the room smil­ing shyly. He shakes hands with every­one, takes off his jacket, cap and back­pack and drops them onto the couch. When asked about his school day he re­sponds as many stu­dents would, ‘It was fine’.

We are nine miles from the cen­tre of Krakow, in the of­fices of Street­work lo­cated next to the Bi­enczy­cki mar­ket, in the Nowa Huta neigh­bour­hood, ac­knowl­edged as the worst in the city. The name trans­lates as ‘New Steel Mill’ and it was built in 1949 as a model city by the then com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment. How­ever the huge tower blocks now house over 200, 000 peo­ple mak­ing it one of the most densely pop­u­lated areas of Krakow. Out­side the win­dows the trees are bare and ten-storey apart­ment blocks tower across the street. The door to the of­fice is cov­ered in posters of young peo­ple, res­i­dents of the area that the Street­work pro­ject sets out to help. In­side it is bright and spa­cious, painted a warm green, an oasis of care and com­pas­sion in the mid­dle of this dif­fi­cult neigh­bour­hood.

The pro­ject started in Jan­u­ary 2012 and is open every week­day and some Sat­ur­days to offer help and ad­vice to young peo­ple aged 15-25 with the aim of mo­ti­vat­ing them to suc­ceed at school, to grad­u­ate and to plan for their fu­ture. The pro­ject is di­vided into four units and this one, Team B, proudly dis­play pho­tographs of the many ac­tiv­i­ties they offer the young peo­ple, in­clud­ing foot­ball matches, day trips and graf­fiti jams.

Shades of hope in the shadow of the blocks.

‘This is not a play­room’ ex­plains Lukasz Kisiel, one of the street­work­ers with the Nowa Huta pro­ject.  ‘We have to go out onto the streets to find them. They can come here to do their home­work, to learn, to get help writ­ing their CV, drink tea or relax play­ing darts or table foot­ball’. There is also a psy­chol­o­gist avail­able to lis­ten to prob­lems and give pro­fes­sional ad­vice to the young peo­ple. 

Three pairs of street work­ers each com­pris­ing a male and fe­male mem­ber cover the area, con­cen­trat­ing on the most prob­lem­atic spots – parks, play­grounds and the areas around gro­cery stores.

‘At the be­gin­ning no­body re­ally knew where to look, so we had to do a sur­vey of the dis­trict’ says Lukasz. ‘Our main tar­get is not nec­es­sar­ily young peo­ple from poor fam­i­lies, be­cause some­times wealth­ier chil­dren have even big­ger prob­lems. They are not crim­i­nals yet, but they could even­tu­ally be­come so’, he adds.

Any­one can be an out­sider.

The pro­ject started in 2001 with vol­un­teers who would look for and help home­less peo­ple dur­ing the win­ter months. Five years later, after se­ri­ous re­search on the prob­lem and based on Ger­man ex­pe­ri­ence they began to work with young peo­ple too. Lukasz Hobot was one of the first six street work­ers in Krakow and is now team co-or­di­na­tor for the pro­ject. He un­der­stands the prob­lem in depth.

‘We had no exact data so we just started work­ing in the neigh­bour­hoods,’ he says, re­call­ing the be­gin­ning of Street­work. ‘Of course meth­ods are chang­ing, places are chang­ing, and the peo­ple we are work­ing with are chang­ing too, but the main idea is the same’ he con­tin­ues.

Krakow has a rel­a­tively young pop­u­la­tion with al­most 13% aged 15-25, but this is not the main rea­son for the prob­lems, as the pro­ject fo­cuses on only 5 of the 18 dis­tricts of the city. Dur­ing the years the pro­ject has been run­ning it has re­ceived fi­nan­cial sup­port from city funds, do­na­tions and NGOs but the most fi­nan­cial help has come from Eu­ro­pean Union fund­ing, mainly from the Eu­ro­pean So­cial Fund.

‘The prob­lem is to give these kids some kind of mo­ti­va­tion, be­cause they spend a lot of time on the streets,’ Hobot ex­plains. ‘They have prob­lems but this doesn’t mean they are bad. They cre­ate their own world and are afraid to get out. Street­work­ers are the only peo­ple who can open their eyes. They need to find a bal­ance. Every­one can be an out­sider. You don’t have to be a mem­ber of an eth­nic or cul­tural mi­nor­ity to be an out­sider’.

Stim­u­lat­ing cre­ativ­ity and de­vel­op­ing abil­i­ties

Street­work­ers need ex­cep­tional so­cial skills be­cause mak­ing the first con­tact is dif­fi­cult. Word of mouth is usu­ally the best ad­vert for the pro­ject. Even if young peo­ple are cu­ri­ous it is not easy to reach them and it is im­por­tant for the work­ers to gain their trust. Most of the young­sters are stuck in their neigh­bour­hood be­cause they don’t know any­thing dif­fer­ent or what else to do. Their daily life is dif­fi­cult and they lose touch with life out­side of it. To com­bat this they are en­cour­aged to come up with ideas for group pro­grams. The idea is to stim­u­late their cre­ativ­ity and de­velop abil­i­ties to show them that there is an al­ter­na­tive way of life to wast­ing time hang­ing around the local park.

One of the most re­cent ac­tiv­i­ties was a climb­ing con­test. The young­sters were chal­lenged to or­gan­ise into small teams in­stead of the ten to fif­teen mem­ber groups more com­mon on the streets. Street­work also in­volves the par­ents in the pro­ject be­cause sup­port­ing the whole fam­ily leads to bet­ter out­comes for the young peo­ple.

Small vic­to­ries against big prob­lems

A sur­vey by Street­work amongst young peo­ple in­volved in the pro­ject shows that most of them face mul­ti­ple prob­lems in their daily life. 92.5% have be­hav­ioural prob­lems; 85.7% have dif­fi­cul­ties at school and al­most the same per­cent­age have prob­lems in their fam­ily life too. Eight out of ten young peo­ple think they need to talk to a psy­chol­o­gist; seven out of ten have ex­pe­ri­enced prob­lems with drugs, and more than half ad­mit­ted hav­ing is­sues with group in­ter­ac­tion.

Street­work has al­ready helped more than 600 young peo­ple im­prove their lives. They have shown these young peo­ple that there is an al­ter­na­tive to hang­ing round in the park all day get­ting drunk and be­com­ing in­volved in anti- so­cial be­hav­iour and crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties. In fact it is hard to tell how many young Krakowians have seen their lives changed thanks to the ad­vice of the staff at Street­work. For this or­gan­i­sa­tion every sin­gle pos­i­tive change is a suc­cess to be proud of.

THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SPECIAL SERIES DEDICATED TO KRAKOW. IT'S PART OF "EUTOPIA: TIME TO VOTE", A PROJECT RUN BY CAFÉBABEL IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE HIPPOCRÈNE FOUNDATION, THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION, THE MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND THE EVENS FOUNDATION.