Youth workers defend Toronto 'hug a thug' programs
Coddling or curing? That's the essence of the debate rekindled by a spate of gun violence in Toronto, questioning the value of spending taxpayers' money to fund social programs aimed at curbing youth violence and gang activity.
After two people died and 23 others were injured in a hail of gunfire at an east-end Toronto community block party on July 16, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford declared war on street criminals, vowing to throw anyone convicted of a gun crime out of the city.
Ford, who had cast the only vote on city council against granting more than $13 million to community programs across Toronto the week before, suggested employment is the best way to set at-risk youth on the right path.
"You get these people working, the best social program is a job, I've always said that,” he told reporters the day after the shooting.
"I don't believe in these programs. I call them 'hug a thug' programs, and they haven't been very productive in the past, and I don’t know why we're continuing with them."
But the director of programs and services at YouthLink, an organization that provides social services throughout the city's east-end and downtown core, says the mayor is oversimplifying a complex issue.
"We all long for a simple, easy, fast answer to a very complex problem, and it's most unfortunate because our programs have really come along," Watson told CTV's Canada AM on Tuesday.
"We have a fabulous return on investment in social programs, at a fraction of the cost of incarceration," she added, explaining the political problem is that they require a long-term approach.
Jacob is a graduate of one of those programs with roots dating back to 1998. Developed by the Canadian Training Institute, “Breaking the Cycle” has drawn funding over the years from the City of Toronto, Human Resources and Skill Development Canada, and the National Crime Prevention Centre.
Growing up in Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood, Jacob told Canada AM he was associating with the wrong crowd until he discovered the program for at-risk youth aged 15-30. Once he got involved, he learned a valuable lesson.
"I don't have to try and be somebody because of my environment, I could try to step outside my environment and be who I am," he told Canada AM.
And even now, as a graduate of the program, he values being able to draw on the resources there.
"When I come across certain obstacles in life that I can't seem to cross, I could always turn to a group of people that I could always resort to and get answers from."
In her own experience with the program, Monique highlighted how that kind of support has boosted her self-reliance.
"Basically learning how to put yourself in a situation where you have to self-motivate yourself and not depend on other people to do that for you," she said.
Echoing Jacob, she also said it helped to realize who was influencing her decisions in life.
"And if it's not a positive influence then you kind of have to think about what you're doing first and just push yourself to understand this is not the right way to go," she said.
For Watson, those kinds of success stories should encourage politicians to consider the roots of youth violence, and consider funding the programs where people know the issues and how to deal with them.
Mayor Ford calls for resources
With more than 200 shootings in Toronto so far this year, including three shootings in a 24-hour period last weekend, Mayor Ford is sticking with his hard line.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with Ford to discuss the guns and gang problem in the city on Tuesday, but the two left their meeting without speaking to reporters.
The prime minister later said strengthening U.S. border security so illegal hand guns don't make it into Canada was a "No. 1" priority for the government, as were tougher penalties for offenders in gun crimes.
“I think the events in Toronto underscore why these penalties are essential, why it is essential to have tough and certain penalties for gun crime,” Harper said, telling reporters he had urged Ford to work with the province to tackle gun crime.
On Monday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the province would provide $12.5 million in provincial anti-violence funding, with $5 million directed to the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy.
Known as TAVIS, the program employs 72 Toronto Police officers trained to prevent gang-related violence and is responsible for nearly 22,000 arrests since its creation in 2006.
McGuinty also promised to invest $500,000 to improve co-ordination between OPP, Toronto and GTA police forces, and another $500,000 to support Toronto community groups.