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Helping to break the gang cycle


While some gangs recruit young people, youth workers and police are working hard to break the cycle of poverty, prospecting, and prison. After a national debate about the rise in gang numbers, reporter JEN WILTON spoke to some of the people helping to change young lives in Wairarapa.

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Ronald Karaitiana.

What people in gangs need is support without judgement, says Ronald Karaitiana.

Karaitiana, chief executive of Te Hauora Runanga o Wairarapa, has worked with young people for many years, and his organisation provides services to youth based on their individual needs.

Karaitiana said when resources are scarce, people find support in gangs, and it is like family.

During covid-19, for example, he says people in gangs looked out for each other, and members had what they needed to get by.

Karaitiana says young people join gangs due to “wicked problems” such as poverty, lack of meaningful relationships, violence, and dislocation from community.

It takes a strong person to turn their life around if they have grown up with gangs, but Karaitiana says in some ways, gang families are not so different from any other family.

He says there is no silver bullet for dealing with the problem, and a whole range of options are needed to engage young people in the process of transformation.

Supporting youth to find another path


Pastor Wayne Poutoa from Carterton Baptist Church joined the Mongrel Mob as a teenager and was in and out of prison before he forged a different path through hard work and education.

He has been working with at-risk youth for more than 30 years and now, with his wife Jennifer, provides emergency accommodation and support services to young people from difficult backgrounds.

They receive referrals from agencies for young people with nowhere else to go.

“Sometimes we are the last cab on the rank – we are the last stop,” Poutoa said.

“They are not at the top of the cliff. They are at the bottom in freefall.”

He says gangs will always exist, but better support is needed for people wanting to move forward and turn their lives around.

Vast sums are spent keeping people in prison or under supervision, which contrasts with Poutoa’s approach.

The pastor runs what he calls an “epicentre of well-being” that takes care of the whole whanau.

They support conflict resolution within families and teach practical skills such as financial literacy, cooking, cleaning, and whatever else young people need to survive on their own.

The young residents pay for rent and food at the centre and receive support to help set them up to live independently once they leave.

Poutoa said while they work with people of different backgrounds and cultures, they are addressing the “culture of circumstance” that brings young people to their door.

This type of support is needed in the long term, and Poutoa strives to create lasting relationships, saying the youngsters often come back to stick their nose in the fridge or eat at his table.

The housing crisis makes their model of assisted living even more essential.

Poutoa says the key to success is providing a safe space for young people to transform their lives.

This means giving them autonomy in certain areas, but also protecting them when some decisions do not work out.

Young people need help finding purpose and direction, but with support, Poutoa says they can learn to break cycles of poverty or violence.

The youth they support may not always be able to go back to their families, but instead, learn how to create a chosen family and get the support they need elsewhere.

The realities of gang life

There was a 13 per cent rise in the number of gang recruits across New Zealand in 2020 when compared with the previous year, according to police data published in January.

However academic and gang expert Jarrod Gilbert challenged these figures in a Newsroom article, saying it was easy to get on a police gang list but rare to be taken off again if people leave the group.

Gilbert says there is a lot of “churn” within gangs with people coming and going at a high rate.

Ian Osland. PHOTO/FILE

Senior Sergeant Ian Osland, prevention manager at Wairarapa Police, says gangs are an important issue in Wairarapa.

All the big gangs found across New Zealand also have a local presence, such as the Headhunters, Mongrel Mob, Killer Beez, Mongols, Nomads, and Black Power.

New prospects generally do a lot of leg work and take risks for the gang, and sometimes young people are sacrificed to protect the bigger players, Osland said.

Gangs try to impress young recruits by showing off their assets, such as cars or cash, to try and make the lifestyle seem appealing.

The police try to focus on early preventive measures, and Osland says the earlier they can intervene, the better.

Sometimes spending time in prison is a motivator to get out of gang life.

However, Osland says there is always a price to pay for leaving, and someone looking to get out may face retribution.

Overall, the goal is to try and keep young people out of jail and set their life on a different course.

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