Lockdown has been particularly hard on children and youth. Over the last year, social workers in Ghent received a lot of feedback from children and young people about what the city should do to support them throughout the pandemic. This was then used to quickly set up new measures, like a youth reception desk or day-care services for vulnerable young people.
Several youth welfare organisations have further highlighted that many homeless children and young people, “have some friends or family where they can stay for a few weeks, and therefore risk not being noticed by the system, because they have a ‘solution’,” says Ruth Inslegers, Director of child poverty for the city of Ghent, “but it is not a sustainable solution,” she adds. Indeed, one of the focal experiences for social services in many cities over the past year has been the emergence of new groups of people, not previously recorded, who are at risk of poverty and social exclusion.
Ghent’s citywide strategy to become a ‘child- and youth friendly city’ theorises that to create good policies for children and young people, they need to be part of innovative measures from the very beginning. For example, children are involved in the redesign of playgrounds and child-friendly spaces, new neighbourhood mobility plans or youth employment strategies. A recent count of all homeless people made an effort to include the group of youngsters highlighted above, and Ghent’s youth council, made up of young people aged 16 to 30, actively reviews all departmental policy notes for the coming five-year period.
In June 2020, the city, in cooperation with some NGOs, organised a ‘Speak-Up’ co-creation event, where young people were given the chance to participate in Ghent’s pandemic-exit plans. They were given a space to discuss the future use of public spaces, sports and culture, education, youth work, and social assistance.
The city has even sought to engage young people through polls on Instagram: more than 50,000 youngsters were engaged in the ‘We are the city’ campaign, which hopes to propel Ghent to becoming European Youth Capital 2024.
In part, this city-wide strategy seeks to break down the barriers of poverty, because one in five children in Ghent is born into a deprived family. The city wants to put an end to this and ensure that no child has to live in poverty. ‘Children First’, for example, aims to reach families that remain unnoticed by regular social welfare services, but does so particularly through the school system by increasing awareness about poverty and building teachers’ confidence in the social care system. Other steps the city has taken include a specific family support team within the city’s social services and providing a government living wage for the poorest households.
“Teachers notice that taking away children’s financial concerns really helps them to feel better, and significantly enhances their wellbeing at school,” says Inslegers.
Ghent also aims to tackle the intergenerational transmission of poverty. The city works towards a better future for children through early intervention and ensuring access to basic universal services. The ‘Houses of the Child’ unite local networks of public and private organisations that work with parents. In these houses, families can find educational support, youth services, childcare, and health and social assistance.
The most deprived neighbourhoods in the city are given special attention, because where a child is born can strongly impact their opportunities in the future. Ghent also therefore works to ensure that vulnerable families have access to decent housing, by providing family-centred guidance and information points at neighbourhood level.
As Mayor Mathias De Clercq has pointed out, “Ghent makes housing a priority with ambitious goals. We will provide better housing to all target groups with a specific focus on people on low income and families with children.”
The goal is that every single family in the city should have adequate access to social assistance if needed. Through integrated ‘walk-in teams’ municipal services work together with healthcare, childcare and social services to reach out to vulnerable families in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods and offer them counselling and support.
“The primary audience is people with pre-school children,” says Inslegers. “These walk-in-teams in disadvantaged areas organise free activities for parents and children like parent groups, play groups, excursions, and information sessions. While the houses of the child assist all types of families, these small walk-in centres really focus on those who are most vulnerable,” explains Inslegers. Three walk-in teams currently support around 2,000 families in Ghent each year.
The experience of the past year has been tough, but must also be informative when it comes to future policy choices. With the EU Child Guarantee set to be considered this year, Inslegers points out that flexibility must be a key feature for this and other policy developments, because “It’s hard to predict what challenges we will face tomorrow.”
On Thursday, 18 February, Eurocities will be hosting the event ‘Growing up and out of poverty: Lessons from cities for the EU Child Guarantee’ to discuss approaches by cities to alleviate child poverty and help children succeed.