To stop youth violence in Toronto, we must solve its root causes

TorStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
25 July 2012.   Susan McIsaac

This summer has been a long and grim one for Toronto. Tragic violence has driven home a troubling point: despite successful efforts to reduce crime over the last decade, too many young people are still falling prey to a life of guns and gangs.

There is widespread agreement that we need a balanced solution to this problem — a strategy with both short- and long-term elements. As many have said, we don’t need further studies or reports. Now is a time for action.

On Tuesday I met with representatives from the government of Ontario, young leaders, the police and youth-serving organizations to map out how we will build on what is already working and expand our collective efforts. Over the next month, as we finalize an action plan, we cannot lose sight of the underlying causes of the violence afflicting our city.

This point was strenuously made by Roy McMurtry and Alvin Curling in their Roots of Youth Violence report. Growing poverty is concentrating in Toronto’s inner suburbs. Endemic unemployment and underemployment forces people to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. There is insufficient access to social services in many parts of Toronto. Alarming gaps exist between neighbourhoods that are doing well and those that are falling behind. These are serious challenges that put our entire city at risk.

But there is good news as well. We already have in place a framework to guide us: a priority neighbourhood strategy that was endorsed by McMurtry and Curling as a way of getting help where it’s needed most. As a first step, we must renew — and strengthen — our commitment to improving conditions in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods.

A variety of partners, from governments to community organizations to the private sector, are already working on this targeted approach. It’s making a real difference. Today we are reaching young people in greater numbers than ever before. New opportunities are being created that provide real alternatives to gang culture. These are the building blocks upon which we can develop a renewed strategy that provides sustained support.

Four key elements should be part of our plan.

First, we need to build youth leadership at a community level. Neighbourhood revitalization is successful only when the people who live there have the resources they need to change their communities from within. Young people themselves must be at the centre of any efforts to design and deliver programs aimed at youth. This has been a key learning of the Youth Challenge Fund and a pillar of its success — one that must become ingrained in our way of thinking about community services.

Second, we need to improve access to supports that provide young people with positive options. No one in our city should be disadvantaged because of where they live — yet many inner suburbs suffer from a lack of access to the services young people need. These include employment programs, settlement services for newcomer youth and programs that help kids stay in school and graduate on time. It’s also about providing renewed amenities and community space where children and youth can gather and play. Every young person in Toronto should have equal access to these opportunities.

Third, we need to increase youth employment. It’s time for governments, social service organizations and the private sector to expand economic opportunities for young people. This involves more than summer jobs. Internships, first-time jobs and ongoing career development supports are the best tools for putting young people on the right path. To be successful, we must engage the private sector and connect corporate leaders with the community.

Finally, we must restore mixed-income neighbourhoods in Toronto. The concentration of low-income families living in the inner suburbs is the single biggest threat to the long-term safety and prosperity of our city. This poverty isn’t just concerning because of where it’s located, but also because racialized communities are disproportionately affected. Efforts like the province’s poverty-reduction strategy must continue to move forward. We are already seeing the impact of these efforts in falling rates of child poverty.

All this will require young people, governments and institutions to work together in new and different ways. For any plan to be effective it has to be a shared responsibility.

This is a critical time for Toronto. A summer of crisis has emerged and our city needs to come together to tackle the violence head on. If we don’t take a long-term approach that promotes lasting solutions, all other efforts will ultimately fall short. We have a solid foundation in place. Let us build from that foundation to create a stronger, safer city for us all.

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