Toronto’s mayor and city staff are touting significant investments in tackling the roots of youth violence in the 2020 budget.
But a close look at that budget, presented by staff on Friday, shows there are few programs set to receive new city funding that directly target youth violence through prevention or intervention programs — the kind experts say are desperately needed following a year in which the number of shootings reached a record high.
Meanwhile, since council approved an anti-gun violence plan in July 2018 — a plan that remains largely unfunded, including in this latest budget — 51 young people aged 13 to 29, the target age of the city’s programs to address the root causes of violence, have been killed in Toronto.
That is about one every 11 days.
The category includes both victims of the city’s first two homicides of 2020: 21-year-old Ahmed Yakot, who was killed in a double shooting in Regent Park late on New Year’s Day, and 25-year-old Paul Anthony Desouza, who was killed in a shooting at a Scarborough townhouse complex on Saturday.
“While the budget invests an additional $18.6 million in poverty reduction and addressing the roots of violence, I firmly believe that we must go further in investing in kids and families, especially as it relates to the threat posed by escalating gun violence,” Mayor John Tory said in a statement after the budget launch Friday. “In consultation with the budget chief and our council colleagues, I will be leading an effort to ensure that we find a way to make additional investments in kids and families and addressing the root causes of violence as the budget approval process proceeds.”
That $18.6 million quoted by the mayor comes from a staff briefing note provided to the Star that compares the $8.4 million budgeted for 180 new police officers to the total of new investments in a wide range of programs that broadly fall under the banner of poverty reduction and the “root causes of violence.”
It follows criticism that government spending has favoured police over funding to tackle problems that lead young people toward violence.
But most of the programs and spending in the categories included in the $18.6-million figure are not the direct intervention strategies experts say will best address the problem, such as the ones staff recommended to council when it approved the anti-gun violence plan in 2018, to much fanfare.
In fact, about half of the total cited by the mayor can be attributed to a $9-million seniors dental care program entirely funded by the provincial government.
In the briefing note, staff concluded the proposed budget would see a two-to-one ratio in spending increases for community programs versus policing.
The $18.6 million is a small fraction of the city’s $13.53 billion operating budget, which includes $12.1 million in new police spending as part of the Toronto Police Service’s proposed budget for 2020, which is more than $1 billion — one of the city’s single biggest line items.
“While I am glad to see the rhetoric change about addressing violence at its core instead of always rushing to fund more police activities, I think the accounting presented may be a bit of a stretch,” said Coun. Mike Layton (Ward 11 University-Rosedale), who initially asked for staff to look at funding programs that address violence and poverty reduction at double the rate of the increase for the Toronto police.
That comes after council made the anti-gun violence plan, totalling more than $50 million, entirely reliant on requests for funding from Ottawa and the province — requests which have been largely denied.
Despite escalating gun violence, council has never moved to fund that staff-recommended plan in the absence of outside money. A total of $26.2 million in community interventions remain unfunded.
The lack of funding has led to the reduction in 11 positions in the city’s social development division, budget documents showed Friday.
One initiative, the TO WARDS Peace program — which would see experts and community partners intervene directly with youth living in priority areas to help avoid retaliatory and other violence — was put forward again by staff for $1.5 million funding this October, at the same time that Toronto police asked the city for $1.5 million to fund a 15-week anti-gang initiative called Project Community Space.
But while council fully funded the police project, it committed to just $300,000 in start-up cash for TO WARDS Peace, telling staff to come back with a business case in the 2020 budget.
Get more of today’s top stories in your inbox
Sign up for the Star’s Morning Headlines email newsletter for a briefing of the day’s big news.
In total, Project Community Space received $4.5 million including investment from the federal and provincial governments. Its 15-week period saw an increase in gun violence, the Star’s Wendy Gillis reported.
The staff-recommended budget is now asking the federal government to fund the remaining need for the TO WARDS Peace program at $1.2 million, as well as $275,000 to help the city’s crisis response team keep up with ongoing violence. After already rejecting the city’s earlier requests, Ottawa has not committed to either.
The funding planned for expanding crisis response is now less than what was originally planned — the 2018 anti-gun violence grant request was more than $1 million annually.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party promised an additional $250 million to cities to combat gun violence if elected — $50 million a year over five years. That funding is not guaranteed and it’s unclear how much would be available for Toronto.
Senior city staff told reporters Friday the city is “committed” to both the TO WARDS Peace program and crisis response expansion while continuing to speak to federal partners. The mayor’s office said it’s their understanding that both programs are funded in this budget, regardless of federal contributions. It’s not clear if additional city money is currently allocated to the programs in this budget.
Nearly $1 million will be spent on four new, dedicated youth spaces in 2020, with a plan to build three more each in 2021 and 2022.
Those dedicated spaces within existing city-run community and recreation centres provide mentorship, homework help, snacks and other programs for at-risk youth in neighbourhoods across the city. The money is largely needed for staffing.
That investment comes after Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12 Toronto-St. Paul’s) pushed to double the number of available youth spaces during last year’s budget in response to ongoing and escalating violence — a proposal that was rejected by council last year.
Matlow celebrated the funding for youth spaces on Friday.
“I deeply appreciate Mayor Tory’s willingness to understand our arguments for youth spaces and that addressing the roots of youth violence makes our communities safer and can change lives,” Matlow told the Star. “This budget commitment will provide supportive environments, homework help, mentoring and access to mental health services to youth across our city.”
The budget launch Friday is a the start of a month-long process that will see council make final spending decisions on Feb. 19.