One of the staff told me to return the following Friday if I wanted to see what was really going on. This time I found about 20 young people having lunch. When I asked some why they came, they looked surprised: “For the money of course.” It certainly was not for the education or Pilates. As I saw for myself, staff handed out envelops of cash ranging from £50 to £200 – a serious amount to a young person receiving roughly £50 a week from the state. According to staff and kids, this happened every Friday.
This financial allowance appeared to be the key to the popularity of the centre. One member of staff said: “You don’t see most of the kids coming any other day.” One girl told me: “I come on Friday lunch times to socialise, pick up my allowance and then I go.” Outside I saw four or five cars queuing up. Young people jumped out and ran into the centre. They returned a few moments later, waving their envelopes in the air and grinning. Then they got back into the car and were driven away. Two girls sent by the Prince’s Trust for a week’s course described how, when one young man turned up furious that his allowance had been cut, he threatened staff, shouted abuse, then snatched up a fire extinguisher and threw it into the office where the woman who handed out the cash crouched, terrified.
Batmanghelidjh has defended the practice of giving out money in this way. “Middle-class parents give their children pocket money,” she has said. “Why does it become a problem when it’s a poor child that’s being given money?” But one staff member pointed out to me that charities are judged by the number of people using them. Handing out cash achieves a high body count.