Council would go on to unanimously approve the strategy, developed over a year, which contains 110 specific actions to provide marginalized youth with the support, space, training and tools to escape or avoid a cycle of violence that continues to claim many lives.
But as violence escalates — with gunfire spiking this past summer — the Star has learned that the strategy is severely and chronically underfunded, leaving staff with few resources. For the life-changing programs that are underway, the funding they receive is tenuous, leaving them constantly at risk of folding.
Seminal research presented to the province a decade ago on the roots of youth violence offered clear recommendations on how to tackle the issues. That study formed the basis of the youth equity strategy in 2014. But without adequate funding, the recommendations the study contained have yet to be fully realized. A co-author of that report, city staff and those working directly with youth say the problems have not changed in 10 years. The only issue, they say, is whether there is political will to carry out the plan we already have in place.
“If they were more aggressive,” he said of the city and the province, “we would have been further ahead.”
When the Roots report was presented to then premier Dalton McGuinty in 2008 — after consultations with youth and experts following unsettling violence that in 2005 was coined the “Summer of the Gun” — little was acted upon.
City staff noted in a later report to council that for the four years after the report was finished, “there were no new major provincial investments in Toronto’s neighbourhood improvement areas supporting youth at high risk of marginalization.”
In 2013, Councillor Josh Matlow moved that the city do something about the ongoing violence, with council agreeing an action plan should be created based on the Roots recommendations.
“Every time another kid was killed there were the same responses from our elected leaders,” Matlow said in a recent interview. “It was just clear to me we don’t need to keep asking what steps we need to take, we need to take action on what we already know we should be doing.”
Since then, despite city staff originally estimating they would need $15.8 million to fully implement the strategy, it has survived on less than $500,000 in annual stable funding, which has to cover two city staff positions to administer the wide-ranging initiatives and some money for programming. Other funding has been cobbled together from one-time provincial grants and other sources.
This term, council has also agreed to spend more than $3.35 billion on a one-stop Scarborough subway when experts say a less-expensive light-rail line would better serve residents, and more than $1 billion to rebuild the eastern Gardiner Expressway, when it could save up to $500 million to tear it down and build a boulevard planners and city staff preferred.
As staff prepare a progress update for a new council, an early status report provided to the Star shows in the last four years, of the 110 actions in the city’s strategy, 15 have not yet been started and 44 are still in the pilot or design phase without sustainable funding — more than half of all the actions. While another 40 actions are marked as “sustained,” keeping programs afloat with minimal resources remains a challenge.
The actions not yet started include hiring specialized youth workers for the city’s most vulnerable youth; exploring best practices for dedicated youth spaces, which the Roots report identified as vital to providing a safe haven and positive role models; and creating a program with incentives for employers to hire youth with criminal records.
There is evidence the programs started under the youth equity strategy are working.
Tina-Nadia Chambers founded the not-for-profit Amadeusz to foster opportunities for young people impacted by violence. The organization recently partnered with the city through the youth equity strategy to start an intensive case-management project with 15 youth facing firearms-related charges both in detention and in the community.
Project co-ordinator Emily Linton meets with youth participating in the project five days a week to support them furthering their education and reintegrating them back into the community. There is a now a long waiting list for youth who want to participate.
They hope to support the same 15 youth for the next five years and expand the program to help a larger group. But the city’s $100,000 funding for the pilot only funds one staff person and was to run out at the end of December. Recently, they were able to secure additional funding from the city for 2019. However, the project, which now has a long wait list of interested youth, has a still uncertain financial future.
“As a city, how can we say that we want to address youth violence and we’re making our resources spread?” said Chambers. “We can’t just invest in policing or corrections, we have to invest in the young people as well. But we can’t just do that for six months.”
Chambers said they see what they do as life-saving work.
“They are killing each other,” she said through tears. “Like, don’t you get it? They’re killing each other. I don’t know if anybody else gets, but that’s a problem. For me. And whose child does it have to be for us to say let’s do something?”
At the end of September, an 18-year-old youth Amadeusz is supporting was preparing to write his GED test, which would give him the equivalent of a high school diploma.
“I recently got in trouble and I needed help … I wanted to get back on track with my education” said the youth, who was connected to the Star through Amadeusz and agreed to speak a reporter anonymously.
If he passes, he noted, he’ll have the opportunity to go to college, to get a job. Without it, he said he probably would have been “not even doing anything with my life.”
“That would make me angry,” he said. “I would probably just end up being back in trouble.”
Now, he said, his biggest concern is what post-secondary courses he would choose if he passes his test.
Dwayne Holness knows first hand what impact the youth equity strategy can have after he was given the chance as a young entrepreneur to pitch his digital media production company, Cortex Creative, for contract work through the city-run initiative ArtWorksTO.
Back then, the Jane-and-Finch-raised artist didn’t know how to write a request for proposal to bid for the work. He said he “faced a lot of barriers” to opportunities growing up, but said the jury saw someone who wanted to work hard.
“When they gave me that project, that was the biggest contract I’ve ever gotten,” he said. “It gave me hope and really reassured that I was going in the right direction.”
Since then, he’s been invited back to be on the ArtWorksTO jury himself and continues to mentor other youth.
“It’s each one, teach one,” he said.
As the city saw the number of shootings and the death toll rise this summer, council met to debate what to do.
Tory pushed a $44-million plan, backed by a majority of councillors, that is based entirely on provincial and federal funding yet to be granted. It allocated money for both community programming, some pilot projects under the youth equity strategy, and also unproven policing aids like ShotSpotter, which is said to be able to detect the sound of gunshots.
The startup cost for ShotSpotter is $1.26 million. It will cost an additional $600,000 annually to operate the program — six times what was initially provided to Amadeusz to help 15 vulnerable youth.
Curling noted their research never recommended increased policing efforts.
“We weren’t talking about the gunshot, did you hear it or not,” Curling said. “We’re talking about what caused it. Not if you heard the sound … Let’s go back to where the gunshot comes from.”
And the application process for high-order government funds will actually see the city competing with community agencies, some who are partnered with the city through the youth equity strategy, for the same pool of money.
Though the province created a new Ontario Youth Action Plan four years after the Roots report and in the wake of the Eaton Centre and Danzig St. shootings, that plan “does not specifically target those youth most at risk to violence and victimization,” city staff reported in 2014, nor did it provide funding to the city to deal with root issues like housing, community facilities and poverty. Many of those responsibilities, like maintaining public housing, have long been downloaded on the city by provincial and federal governments.
In the last four years, youth-centred programs and poverty reduction initiatives that would benefit youth and their families have also been put on the chopping block, forcing advocates and front line workers to make the annual trek to city hall to demand the funds be included.
In 2017, for example, Tory promised to include funds in the budget for all of the programs under a poverty reduction strategy earlier approved by council, which includes several youth equity strategy actions such as dedicated youth hubs in libraries which have proven to be wildly successful.
But when Tory’s executive committee approved a recommended budget, the new youth spaces had been left off the list for funding. After this reporter pointed out the omission to the mayor’s office, a member of Tory’s executive committee moved to add the funds — $387,000 — during the final budget vote at council.
Matlow said the work to date to address the root issues of youth violence has been “shameful.”
“I think the mayor and council need to do a better job at implementing plans rather than just announcing them.”
Councillor Neethan Shan, who Tory named the city’s youth equity champion in 2017, said the city can’t afford to lose time by not funding the plan to curb youth violence already in place.
“I think the main concern for me is that we can’t continue to introduce new strategies when we have really not adequately funded things we have committed to before,” he said.
In a statement, Tory’s campaign spokesperson said the mayor, who is seeking re-election, believes “we need to do everything we can to provide our young people opportunity in neighbourhoods across Toronto.”
The statement did not specifically address the youth equity strategy or its funding.
Curling spoke to Tory recently about the need for more support for youth as the mayor sought his endorsement in the upcoming election.
Curling said he would support Tory, telling the Star: “The real thing now is to do some of the tough things.”
That may be more difficult under Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative majority government, Curling said. Ford has recently announced funding for policing and prosecution.
It’s up to leaders, Curling said, to make good on the best laid plans.
“We do know what to do.”
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags