Councillor Josh Matlow

Community demands Toronto make good on plan to curb youth violence

City councillors and community advocates are demanding a plan to address the roots of youth violence be fully and sustainably funded starting with this year’s budget.

At city hall on Wednesday, city staff were asked to provide a “clear” and “honest” accounting of what has yet to be done under the Toronto Youth Equity Strategy that council approved in 2014 and what is needed to implement all of the actions identified in that plan.

Community organizers from Regent Park and councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam (front left and right) are calling on council to fully implement and fund a plan to tackle youth violence.
Community organizers from Regent Park and councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam (front left and right) are calling on council to fully implement and fund a plan to tackle youth violence.  (JENNIFER PAGLIARO / TORONTO STAR)

Council will consider later this month a request from councillors Kristyn-Wong-Tam and Josh Matlow for a budget briefing on the strategy. The process to balance the 2019 budget, which launches on Jan. 28, could mean a difficult start to the new term for Mayor John Tory, with revenue from the housing market the city has long relied on falling and a promise he made to not increase property taxes.

The push to properly fund the strategy comes after the city saw an uptick in gun violence last year that took the lives of young people including Mackai Bishop Jackson, 15, and after the Star reported the youth equity strategy currently remains underfunded and not yet fully implemented.

Jackson’s neighbours in Regent Park say the city’s strategy to support their youth is sound. What’s missing, they say, is the will to make good on those plans.

Community worker Sureya Ibrahim directed her comments to Tory on Wednesday, calling the continued loss of young lives unacceptable and the harm that has come to communities like theirs “preventable.”

“Under your watch, what kind of legacy are you going to be leaving and how many lives have we lost under your leadership?” she asked.

“We are sick and tired of going to the funerals.”

Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat said Wednesday in a statement that the mayor has been briefed by city staff and “remains committed to closing any gaps remaining, as identified by city staff, in funding the youth equity strategy.”

The youth equity strategy was created by city staff following a 2013 motion by Matlow to act on a key provincial report that identified and made recommendations to address the roots of youth violence. The city’s strategy contains 110 actions that focus on those aged 13 to 29, including initiatives to improve their chance at employment, provide access to safe spaces and meaningful mentorship.

In the nearly five years since the strategy was approved, 150 people aged 13 to 29 have been killed in Toronto, according to the Star’s own database (several domestic incidents, which mostly involve parents and children, were not included in this tally). That is about one youth killed every 12 days.

At last count, in October 2018, staff whose job it is to implement 110 actions in the strategy calculated that 15 actions had not been started, 17 were still in a research phase and 27 were still being piloted. Eight actions were deemed no longer relevant and three were considered complete. The remaining 40 were said to be “sustained,” though it appears not all of them have long-term funding attached to them.

What that analysis, provided to the Star, means is that of the actions still considered relevant, more than half had not been implemented or sustained since 2014.

The amount of money required to fully implement and sustain the strategy’s goals today is not clear.

Over the last several months, staff have presented a funding target of roughly $15 million for three different time periods.

Originally, the Star was told early estimates called for $15 million in annual funding when less than $500,000 was being provided in sustainable ongoing funding.

A backgrounder posted online by city staff in early December states that implementation of the strategy was in 2014 estimated to cost $15 million overall.

In an email Wednesday, city spokesperson Brad Ross referenced a briefing note from 2015 that cited the need for $14.8 million in investments. But that briefing note said the $14.8 million was needed to fund the strategy in just 2015 and 2016.

Staff now say that $13.5 million has been invested from various divisional budgets over four years.

The backgrounder does not make clear what the ongoing costs of fully implementing the strategy are.

Though staff were meant to provide annual progress reports to council, that hasn’t happened.

On the ground, those responsible for implementing the programs under the strategy say they remain uncertain from year to year whether funding will be coming to maintain or expand services, mentorship and outreach for the vulnerable youth they serve.

That included, until recently, a program that saw youth mentoring other youth on mental health. That successful community healing program, which is part of the Toronto Youth Equity Strategy, received five-year funding from the federal government alone to continue operating and expand to other neighbourhoods in need.

“What we need to do is get a clear picture from city staff by way of a report through the budget process on what resources they need to action it out properly,” Wong-Tam said Wednesday, as well as reporting on outcomes.

Matlow said government is far better at announcing plans than properly implementing them. He said what they’re asking for is a briefing that explains “what has been done, what hasn’t been done and what will it take to get it done without mincing words.”

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