A West Belfast youth worker has said planned cuts to youth centres are "callous and cruel" and warned that it will have a detrimental impact on young people.
Some youth centres across Northern Ireland are facing having to cut the number of nights that they can open for young people and the number of staff employed.
Centres in each council area of Northern Ireland are currently applying for funds from the Education Authority, which provides funding for such facilities. However, the EA has indicated that many youth centres are set to receive less funding for next year, according to BBC News NI.
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One of those facing a funding cut is Stephen Hughes, who works at St Peter's Immaculata Youth Centre in the Divis area.
Stephen explained St Peter's faces losing more than a quarter of its funding - it received over £130,000 from the EA last year but the maximum funding available in 2023/24 is £96,823.
That's despite the EA's own assessment of the Divis and Lower Falls area stating that there are a number of "social issues" including anti-social behaviour, interface violence, poor mental health and poverty.
The funding cut means that St Peter's will have to reduce the number of nights that the centre will be open for young people, close a third of its services and pay off 50% of its staff.
Stephen told Belfast Live that he had been expecting to receive the same size of grant that was previously made available last year. He has branded the cuts "callous and cruel".
"We knew that there was going to be a funding cut and that keeping the grant at the same amount as it was in 2021 was the equivalent of a 30% cut due to salary increases and the cost of living crisis," he said.
"That was acceptable for us but for the EA to come in and cut it by a further 25% is absolutely heartbreaking. To know that we're going to have to lose so many services for our children and young people is scandalous.
"The reality is that we will have to reduce the number of nights we will be open for young people from six nights a week to four. It will also lead to the complete removal of all our detached and street-based youth workers, including those who respond to civil unrest.
"There's a number of initiatives that will have to close completely including our drugs programme, which has been a pretty successful support structure for young people who are struggling with substances.
"We've also lost our summer programmes and our schools work, removing educational activities for young people during the summer months when they have most free time and you can guess what they're going to get up to."
Stephen added: "It feels like all our hard work over the last 10 years has just gone down the tubes and this will set us back a decade. This decision will directly impact on our most vulnerable communities and leave them exposed to exploitation, coercion and self-harming behaviours.
"That's going to have a hugely detrimental impact on communities in interfaces and socially and economically challenged areas who are going to suffer the most.
"For us it's about the implications on young people's lives and the kids who are going to end up with poor mental health, in the youth justice system, incarcerated or in the hands of paramilitary groups."
Some of the staff at St Peter's are also facing unemployment after March 31, 2023 amid the ongoing financial uncertainty.
Stephen explained that the youth club would also have to limit the number of young people attending per night from the current 90 to just 35 and exclude many others with additional needs as it won't have the safe ratios of staff to young people to admit them.
"In the run up to Christmas, imagine having to tell half your staff that they won't be here next year. It's just brutal and affecting us all," he said.
"The youth service budget is only one per cent of the education budget so we're not a huge amount of money but the repercussions of this decision are going to be huge so it needs a rethink.
"One young person going through the youth justice system and being incarcerated costs £350,000, which is the equivalent of seven of my staff."
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said the proposed cuts to youth services will put young people at risk of "serious harm".
“This will be a hammer-blow for our youth sector, which has been gutted by years of cuts,” Mr Carroll said.
“Youth clubs are finding it increasingly difficult to make their meagre budgets stretch, with most depending on voluntary hours to keep their doors open. They’re also being hit with the same extortionate energy bills that are squeezing so many households.
“Youth clubs are a lifeline for our young people, particularly in deprived constituencies. It is unacceptable that they will be forced to scale back their services at such a difficult time. These proposals will put more young people at risk of serious harm.
He concluded: “I will be meeting youth groups in the coming days and will be encouraging grassroots resistance to these short-sighted and cruel cuts.”
An EA spokesperson said: “The Education Authority fully understands the vital role youth services play in all communities.
“We will continue to work with the Department of Education to minimise the risk to these really important services against the backdrop of very significant financial challenges.”
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