‘We’re in a dark room, but we’re not flipping the light switch for them. We’re standing with them, side by side, shining a torch on the switch and saying: “go and get it”.’
Inspector Iain Murray is the project leader at Street & Arrow, a social enterprise which employs and supports people with convictions. Launched by the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit and associated company Braveheart Industries (BHI), the programme operates out of a modern catering truck selling gourmet street food in Partick’s Mansfield Park.
If it weren’t for today’s biting rain and the rumble of a Subway carriage underfoot, you’d be forgiven for sensing something transatlantic about the van (a 1972 vintage Californian Airstream, I’m told) and the chic environment built around it.
That’s no coincidence – the project was inspired by Los Angeles company Homeboy Industries, which works to make streets safer by offering support and training to people with previous gang involvement. ‘We know through experience that these people who come from chaotic backgrounds lack hope and lack opportunity,’ Inspector Murray says. The demand is huge, he adds, and there’s no shortage of people who want the chance to turn their lives around.
BHI won’t accept anyone who is mandated to be there, believing that the will has to be there before there’ll be a way. Referrals come from several directions – from third sector organisations and Jobcentre Plus to The Wise Group and the Celtic FC Foundation, as well as through outreach work done in prisons by Inspector Murray.
Team members are employed on 12-month contracts for 35 hour weeks and paid the living wage. The job is only part of the package, though – they also have access to counselling, therapists and round-the-clock support from mentors (known within the company as Navigators) who have lived experience of struggling with addiction and criminal behaviour.
They’re also offered basic education skills and qualifications like SVQs, first aid certificates and barista training. Even parenting guidance is available – the majority of those currently employed have children of their own. BHI is all too aware that their employees may have fallen victim to a multi-generational cycle and require redirection in parts of life many of us might take for granted.
Inspector Murray reflects on the recruitment process and says, ‘It wasn’t low lying fruit, we don’t choose the easiest people to get back into work. It’s those who are furthest from getting a job, those who people would turn their nose up at and say, “oh, too risky”.’
The initiative is one of – if not the – first of its kind in the world to be operated by a police body. The programme appears to be founded on the kind of pragmatic idealism which Scots sometimes have a tendency to shy away from, which proves one of several valuable lessons learned from the company’s American partners. ‘You start to believe in them and they start to believe in themselves. There won’t be a more loyal person out there.’
Callum (26) joined Street & Arrow in February. He was involved with ‘a lot of violence and crime’ and nearly lost his life in January before deciding he was going to make a change. ‘I’m coming up for a year sober, I’ve got custody of son, my wee girl’s in my life and I’m a partner to my girlfriend,’ Callum says, crediting the support and guidance of the BHI team. ‘This is the best thing that ever happened to me.’ He mentions that he lacked positive role models growing up and chuckles. ‘For me to get that from a police officer… That’s surreal after the life I used to lead.’
There’s a strong focus on encouraging the team to be honest and vulnerable with their mentors, leaders and each other – many of the people with convictions carry trauma that manifested as destructive behaviour. “It’s not an excuse, it’s just been normalised chaotic behaviour. We want to take them away from that and equip them with the practical and emotional skills they need to be resilient.”
Inspector Murray hopes that their work is the beginning of a viable alternative to the cycle of offence and incarceration, reducing the number of victims and benefiting communities in the long term. He points out that for every person involved in programmes like theirs rather than in custody, between £34-40,000 of public money is saved.
There are three criteria BHI employees must meet to count as a programme success story: staying in full time work, refraining from reoffending, and complete abstinence from substances. Street & Arrow’s current success rate is 100%.
The truck opens Monday-Friday as well as every second Saturday when the farmers’ market runs. Inspector Murray hopes they can open a second location closer to the city centre soon and in the meantime, that the community joins them in giving second chances.