Russ Ford's Blog

A Successful Program that Won't Come to Ontario

Let's start with what I would consider fairly benign statements about youth violence.

1) We cannot arrest our way out of the problem

2) No kid grows up aspiring to be a gang member

3) The roots of youth violence are embedded in issues of poverty and racism.
If you agree with those statements, you must as I do, simply shake your head when you look at how we have responded to the issue of youth violence.

As I said last week, most of the province's anti gang money has gone to the Toronto Police Department's TAVIS program. This initiative is designed to address community violence by significantly increasing the police presence in a part of the city that has been identified as having a high concentration of gang behavior.

TAVIS has concentrated its work in public housing communities. By day the police seem to be trying to establish good relations with the community. By night however, they turn these same communities into police states. Everyone on the street is stopped and interrogated.

The police say the program is working and point to the increased number of arrests in "TAVIS communities". I suppose that is an indicator of success if it is your belief that by arresting as many as you can, you will stop gang behavior. That is however neither realistic nor true. If incarceration is the solution, then the country that incarcerates the most, the United States, should be the country with the least amount of gang activity.

TAVIS is just another example of the misguided nature the "get tough on crime "agenda has to offer. I have no doubt that there is less crime in those communities when TAVIS is present. But TAVIS does not stay, it moves to another community. At the moment there is no evidence to support the notion that these communities remain crime free once TAVIS leaves. In other words, a very expensive program with no long term affects. Yet the provincial government states it will use "best practices" in addressing youth violence. If that is true, please provide the evidence that turning a community into a police state has any long term positive gains.

This leads us to our second point that no youth aspires to be a gang member. It is not ambition that puts them there, it is the practicality of living in a marginalized community. Gangs are not just about engaging in illegal activities, they are an integral part of the social context of communities. People join gangs because their friends do and to be with them you need to join. It would indeed be an act of courage not to join in some cases.

That is however not to diminish the economics of gang participation. It is an opportunity to get money when there are few or no other viable options. Every time a kid joins a gang it is an indication that he/she has lost hope for a better life and it is an indication that we as a society have failed one more person.

The solution to gangs is to eliminate poverty which as we know is racialized in Toronto. If you are black or first nations, the chances are significantly greater that you will be poor.

Easier said than done of course, we cannot just wave a magic wand and eliminate poverty and racism.

What we can do is look at programs that are successful and if possible direct our resources there. Sort of a "best practices" approach.

Without a doubt the most successful anti gang program in the world currently operates in east Los Angeles, in one of America's most crime ridden communities. Home Boy Industries was initiated by a Catholic priest who simply got tired of going to the funerals of young gang members in his community. He decided the best way to fight gangs was to provide the youth with a way to make money outside of the drug trade.

So he started to employ gang members to work in a bake shop he created. That morphed not a printing company and now Home boy Industries runs a variety of ventures including a restaurant in the Los Angeles City hall.

Aside from the fact that the only people who work for Home Boy Industries are former gang members, it is different from your typical commercial enterprise. Aside from working on the job Homeboy employees must take educational upgrading and participate in social programs like anger management.

So while Home Boy is a business, it has a very different bottom line from those it competes with in the private sector. Those extras have to be paid for and the point of Home Boy is not to make money but to provide a viable option to the gangs.
While Home Boy has been hugely successful it is not a model that would work in Ontario. No government here would ever fund something like Home Boy. Starting up a business using former gang members as employees would be well outside of the comfort zone of any level of government in Ontario.

Government funders want guarantees that what you say will happen even if in the end it makes little impact on communities. What if the provincial government, for example, funded something like Home Boy in Toronto and it failed. The opposition would rise in the House and demonize the government for its fiscal irresponsibility. And if it were to succeed members of our private sector would complain about being forced to compete with a government funded service.

Home Boy got its start by getting a few large corporate donations. That is the way it is in the United States. Social agencies south of the border are far more reliant on corporate sponsorship than they are here. We rely more on government funding. Corporations in Canada do not donate anywhere near the same level as they do in the United States. It is a cultural difference between the two countries but suffice to say Home Boy industries or a similar program would never receive the same amount of corporate money if they were located in Canada.

Home Boy does receive government funding but it is a small amount of their total budget. Today the main source of their revenue is the profits their businesses produce even if they are deliberately inefficient by hiring more staff than they need.

Fundamentally Home Boy works because it is run by the community. With rare exception all of the management team of Home Boy Industries are former gang members as well who have graduated from the program. Again, no funder in Ontario would be comfortable with that type of management.

There are solutions to youth violence but they just do not fit into some bureaucratic notion of risk aversion. Too bad because unless we change our approach more of our youth will be marginalized and feel they have no option but to become a gang member.

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