Expand after-school spaces for youth to stem violence, Toronto councillor urges

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The city can fill in the gaps in the availability of after-school youth spaces in neighbourhoods from Etobicoke to Scarborough — putting almost every Toronto youth within two kilometres of such a safe environment — at a cost of $3.1 million, a new proposal from a city councillor shows.

The pitch, developed as one of the planks in Josh Matlow’s re-election platform released Friday, comes at a time when violence continues to escalate across the city. On Tuesday, it claimed the life of a 15-year-old boy in Regent Park, Mackai Bishop Jackson, who loved basketball and who frequented a city-run community centre that was closed to the public when he was killed.

Matlow mapped 21 existing youth spaces to find the gaps. Those include what are called enhanced youth lounges run by the city and youth hubs run by the public library. Both models employ consistent staff in dedicated spaces with snacks and equipment like computers, video games and other technology to make them youth-friendly. The spaces are open five to six days a week. The city runs other drop-in programs without those enhancements.

Looking at the areas not covered by those sites and existing city facilities, Matlow says 20 additional locations, doubling what’s available, should be created. That would include creating spaces in what city has deemed “neighbourhood improvement areas,” such as Kingsview Village—The Westway in Etobicoke, and Scarborough Village.

“Every young person should know there is a space available for them,” Matlow said.

“Indeed, the lack of space was one of the loudest messages we heard: youth and those working with them repeatedly expressed a need for youth-specific space within their communities,” the 2008 report says. “Far too many disadvantaged neighbourhoods lack space for youth to play sports, engage in the arts, dance or just hang out.”

The shortage of space, the report noted, leaves youth on the streets and exposed to negative peers and interactions. It also “deprives them of the positive development that comes from engagement in sports or arts or involvement with positive peers, youth workers and community leaders in activities that would build their skills, confidence, optimism and belief in their futures.”

Matlow kick-started Toronto’s youth equity strategy, which council approved in 2014. After years of inaction on the 2008 report, it laid out specific steps based on the work of McMurtry and Curling. The progress of the strategy is currently under review.

In recent months, council and Premier Doug Ford’s government have reacted to violence that has made headlines by committing or apply for additional funding for some community programs and policing, including controversial new technology that is said to be able to detect the sound of gunshots.

Matlow said the money allocated for that unproven technology, combined with money council approved for additional CCTV cameras — totalling $2.6 million — is “wasteful” and could be better used to cover most of the expense of the new youth spaces.

“Every time we lose another kid, there’s another blue-ribbon panel announced or another report that’s going to be devised, and then those recommendations end up on the dusty archives of history,” he said. “We no longer need to ask what we have to do. We need to follow through with what we know we can do.”

The youth spaces that exist now have proven to be wildly popular.

A briefing note released by library staff earlier this year showed the number of visits to its youth hubs increased by nearly 50 per cent from 2016. That bump, staff said, is because new hubs became available — meaning the more youth hubs the city built, the more youth showed up.

A 2016 survey of participants found more than 70 per cent felt the program increased their feeling of safety and that they felt comfortable asking staff for help, the briefing note says.

Youth lounges cost $179,000 each, including one-time $10,000 startup costs to make the spaces more youth-friendly. That funding includes a full-time, dedicated staff person. The lounges are also staffed with a minimum of two part-time staff, the city said.

The library spaces cost $130,000 with one full-time staff member, who is a librarian, and support from other library staff and volunteers.

Matlow reached the $3.1-million estimate by using an average cost of $155,000 per space.

Bill Sinclair, executive director of St. Stephen’s Community House, which offers an arcade drop-in five days a week with dedicated staff, called Matlow’s push for expansion a “terrific” idea.

“I think the city is ideal to provide spaces because they have property, they have great facilities,” he said.

The city’s enhanced youth lounges are based on the St. Stephen’s model. Sinclair stressed that having two dedicated, trained staff, ideally youth outreach workers, is an important component of how they operate, allowing them to provide one-on-one counselling as needed.

Having spaces within walking distance for youth who can’t afford extra TTC fares; access to food; and flexibility in programming to allow youth to make the space their own are key, Sinclair said.

St. Stephen’s and many other non-city-run youth spaces operate through charitable donations and grant funding, making them precarious. He noted other vulnerable populations don’t rely on the same kind of spotty funding.

“No one runs nursing homes with bake sales, he said.

Matlow is supportive of more staff for the city’s youth lounges, noting any additional costs would still make creating the new spaces a relatively small investment for the city given the potential benefits for so many youth.

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags


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