Hot! Toronto’s priority neighbourhood programs mustn’t be abandoned

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published on Monday July 16, 2012.

Sometimes, bad things happen to good programs. Outright cancellation isn’t the only way to kill a municipal initiative. A slow dilution of financial support can also be fatal. Priorities shift, public focus drifts away, and the targeted service gradually disappears.

There’s concern that withering of this sort is about to weaken Toronto’s “strong neighbourhoods strategy” that has pumped an estimated $210 million into 13 especially-troubled areas of the city since 2005. Created in the aftermath of the deadly “summer of the gun,” the program funds a variety of services aimed at preventing people — especially the young — from turning to crime.

They receive jobs, mentoring, sports and recreation opportunities, education tips, health advice, and help in navigating the municipal bureaucracy. It would be especially discouraging to lose those services now, amid rising gun violence and federal cuts to youth justice programs.

Yet there’s genuine fear for the future of these programs. An $85 million pool of one-time cash is set to evaporate over the coming year and there’s no new sources of money in sight, report the Star’s Jayme Poisson and Amy Dempsey.

The Youth Challenge Fund in particular is at risk. It has spent almost $47 million supporting 111 initiatives over six years reaching into all 13 of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. Those projects include after-school tutoring, leadership skills development, an urban farm project, and a host of other “youth focused” initiatives. The organization has stopped accepting funding applications and will no longer operate as of March next year. Some of its “legacy initiatives” will continue through other sources of funding, but an obvious withering is underway.

This comes at a time when not only Toronto but every level of government faces pressure to cut spending. Many potential private donors are feeling the pinch too. City council did vote earlier this year to continue supporting priority neighbourhoods. But rather than concentrate on the program’s original 13 areas, it extended the strategy to cover trouble spots in all 140 neighbourhoods. This is a significant dilution.

Council did approve one positive change. A website called Wellbeing Toronto will track a wealth of data on each neighbourhood. It will measure indicators on crime, economic progress, education levels, the environment, and health status, among other criteria. Over time, it could provide solid evidence on how much good community-building programs actually do.

The only way they can make any difference at all, however, is if they receive stable, adequate funding in the first place. That’s something the city, and the private sector, must take to heart. Creating strong neighbourhoods and self-reliant youth is a good investment that benefits us all. These programs can’t be left to wither and die.

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