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The St Andrew’s Youth Club in Victoria turned 150 this year, making it the oldest in Britain. We find out how it’s still changing lives for young people in the area.
The art studio is packed floor to ceiling with canvases of all sizes, covered with all manner of vibrantly coloured, spray paint designs and images. “In here, it’s art. Outside, it’s criminal damage,” says Paul Whittle, manager of St Andrew’s Youth Club in Victoria.
The art studio – converted from a disused storage room – is a more recent addition to the facilities at St Andrew’s, which also include a recording studio, theatre, gym and sports hall with equipment for a host of games, plus a games room with pool tables and sofas for members to catch up with friends.
Creating the studio to give young members a space to try their hand at urban art is one of the many ways that Paul and his team at St Andrew’s keep the area’s youngsters engaged, which is no mean feat.
Founded in 1866, the club has just celebrated its 150th birthday, a long time for any organisation to stay relevant, even more so if you’re serving society’s most forward-thinking demographic: teenagers.
“Thirty years ago, when you went home, you watched what your mum and dad were watching on telly, because there was one TV and it was in the lounge. Now a lot of [kids] have a TV in their bedroom,” Paul explains. “We have to be relevant, we have to be interesting. If not, they vote with their feet and leave, and we can’t stop them.”
The club has its own computers and games consoles, but Paul says they’re more to “hook people in”. “They can’t use the excuse of ‘I’m going to stay at home and play Fifa because you don’t have it.’ We have it so they don’t have the excuse not to come,” he explains. Sitting at home playing video games all evening is, he says, not healthy.
“A parent said to me last year she hadn’t seen her son in a while; she said he spends his evenings in his bedroom on his computer. I think that’s bad because there’s not social interaction with other people.”
St Andrew’s isn’t just for young people; its 700-strong membership includes children aged five up to adults in their 80s and 90s, although the majority are youngsters. Around 70 per cent live in social housing, like Paul himself, who grew up on an estate in Pimlico and first started coming to the club aged 10.
After spending most of his 20s abroad, Paul came back to London and was asked by the then club manager if he could lend a hand running activities at St Andrew’s. “So I did it for three months and 33 years later I’m still here,” he says.
Keeping the doors open at a facility like St Andrew’s doesn’t come cheap. On any given evening, Paul says, he can expect 60-100 young people through the doors and the club needs the youth workers to care for them, equipment and supplies for activities, plus food and drinks. Balancing the books is the biggest challenge he faces.
A few years ago, Paul and his team had to deal with the loss of £95,000 in funding annually. In 2010, public sector cuts meant Westminster City Council ceased its £45,000-a-year support of the club, and in 2011 a local school that had been paying St Andrew’s £50,000 a year to use the sports hall opened its own facility, stopping its payment. “We lost £95,000 of our guaranteed income almost overnight,” says Paul. “It was like being a boxer and getting punched, and then on the way down getting punched as you’re getting near the floor.”
But despite this blow, St Andrew’s has managed to keep going, relying on charity funding and renting its facilities to local groups. Membership fees makes up less than one per cent of the club’s income, but Paul says it’s important that people make a contribution, to feel invested in the place.
“We don’t means test people; we think it’s demeaning,” he explains. “I would say probably 85 per cent of our membership could afford to pay a lot more than we charge, but the 15 per cent who can’t would absent themselves if we put the prices up, and they’re the 15 per cent who need this club most.”
St Andrew’s Youth Club, Alec Wizard House, 12 Old Pye Street. To get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7222 648.