Russ Ford's Blog

Are We Headed for Another Summer of the Gun?

This past week I was one of three executive directors to meet with Dr. Alvin Curling who is currently working as strategic advisor to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.

We were there to talk about "The Roots of Youth Violence" a report that Dr. Curling co-authored in 2008 in response to the growing level of gun violence in Toronto .

Those of us working in communities know the reality of the situation. All it takes is for one person to "disrespect" another and we will face another summer of death and related gun crime. One violation of "the code" and the public hand wringing will begin.
That is all we really do when there is a shooting. If an innocent gets killed, there is public outrage. If a gang member gets killed, well who cares. And not caring is at the root of the problem. We never cared about these youth when they were alive, why would we care when they are dead?

Once it is labelled a gang shooting and only gang members are killed , the police are then given a pass. No one cares if the perpetrator is brought to justice.

The purpose of our meeting was clear. We wanted to see how we could move the agenda as outlined in Dr. Curling's report forward.

He was very forthright. While still very passionate and committed to addressing the issue of youth violence, he was extremely frustrated at how little has happened. He lamented the fact that no one is really taking responsibility. If he goes to one Ministry they say it is the responsibility of another. If he goes to one level of government, they will claim it is the responsibility of another level.
As I have said before, government structures are set up not to innovate but to either stop things from happening or ensuring if something does happen it gets bogged down in government red tape.

The government does have what it calls its "action plan" which it claims is a result of Dr. Curling's report.

Well let's take a look at the government's actions. The largest receiver of funds through its youth strategy has been the Toronto police through the TAVIS program which targets neighbourhoods considered to be at risk of gang behavior with an increased police presence.

Let us remember we are talking about the roots of youth violence yet the largest beneficiary of money directed art youth violence goes to the police. The performance of TAVIS can be the subject of a whole other blog there is far from universal support for its approach. Suffice to say that putting most of your money into law enforcement has precious little to do with tackling the roots of violence.

The government says it is developing further initiatives based on "evidenced based best practices." Of course it does not articulate what those best practices are and I doubt they know. The notion of best practices is simply applying a nice sounding phrase used in clinical medicine to the community. And of course all of our actions have to be base d on evidence because innovation is politically too risky. Don't be innovative because it might not work then the opposition will have something to say in the legislature about government waste.

When I think of best practices in community work I think about writers like, Alinsky, Putnam and McKnight to name just three. When I think about the largest and most successful project I think of the American government's War on Poverty circa 1965.

What all of these writers would say and what the war on poverty demonstrated is that best practices in community work is about giving the resources to the community to define its own needs. It is not about setting up more government programs and it is certainly not about giving the policies more money.

While it is difficult to summarize a report as comprehensive as the Roots of Youth Violence" in a sentence or two, the roots are housed in issues of poverty and racism.

It would indeed be historic if any government at any level ever tried to address poverty in a meaningful way. One does not have to look farther than the pathetically low social assistance rates as evidence.

Much of the violence has occurred in public housing buildings that are owned by the City of Toronto. It was formerly run by the province but Premier Harris downloaded it to the city without adequate resources to manage the portfolio.

Without adequate resources the state of public housing has been instead decline. So much so that the City is considering selling off some of its assets in order to fund repairs in other units. Tenants now wait an inordinate amount of time to get repairs done. To be blunt , the City is a slum lord.

The solution to gang violence is to take gangs out of business. There are no examples or to use government talk "best practices" in which increased police enforcement has lead to the end of gangs. Increased enforcement may deal with the current leadership of the gang, but the leadership is quickly replaced often by people more notorious that those just caught by the police.

The solution to taking gangs out of business is to make them irrelevant. You do that by giving youth other options to gang participation.

So where to start?

We have to change government, not in a political sense but in a structural way.

Let's bring innovation back into funding. Let's get rid of the risk aversion mentality that currently exists. With that of course goes the overwhelming need for data. How did we ever do anything without data? This may surprise some but just because you don't or cannot input something into a computer does not mean it did not happen. If you really want to see if a program is working come and look at it. Talk to the community members, they will tell you whether it has had an impact or not.

Let's stop the buck passing between ministries and levels of government. It matters little who takes responsibility as long as someone does. Dr. Curling suggests we need a provincial secretariat on youth violence that would cut across ministries. Certainly worth a try because the current system sure is not working.

Fix public housing, literally. It is home to many, make it a place people can have pride in living there.

Increase pubic assistance levels so people can actually live on the money they receive and not be forced to go to food banks.

Invest directly in communities. Give money to indigenous organizations to address matters in their own neighbourhoods.

Provide free public recreation for all.

Increase Afro centric schools. The results have been positive, we need more.
Governments need to acknowledge their current austerity agenda hurts those who have the least. How much more does the economy have to fail before we finally say cutting government spending in a time of market decline is complete nonsense. It is time for public investiture in capital projects like the restoration of public housing.

And do not put money into writing another report on youth violence. We know the issues and the solutions are present. it is time to act.

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