Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Making progress, one kid at a time

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We have to start funding failure in Winnipeg's core area.

Because supporting success has only made the problems that plague our inner city bigger.

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I first came to this conclusion in 1972 when I worked at Youth Action Project or YAP, which was a drop-in centre for inner-city children and youth. Kids would drop in and play floor hockey or sew beads together while we tried to pass on positive values (stay in school, love your mom) and provided an alternative to negative activities (sniffing, stealing cars), which were increasing in alarming numbers out on the streets.

It didn't take too long to notice the number of kids coming to the drop-in centre was less than the number staying away. Our board of directors decided to hire a couple of local staff to go out and spread the word.

At first, these "outreach workers" were successful and we enjoyed the company of substantially greater numbers of area youth every evening. But we also had to start breaking up more fist fights and we began to notice things missing (pretty much anything that wasn't nailed down).

Then one morning our daytime staff discovered our office had been broken into overnight and our petty cash box was empty. So we started checking for "stowaways" before we closed for the night.

"Hmm! These new drop-in kids seem to be rather nasty little buggers!"

Pretty soon our outreach workers, who were supposed to be out in the community knocking on doors and hanging around street corners, were spending most of their time in the office and gym. The number of newcomers to the drop-in centre began to drop but nobody told the outreach workers to get back out there and do the job they were supposed to do.

At first I thought this was because the negative activities we were experiencing were too much to handle and somebody had decided to go back to the safer norm. But would it not be more in keeping with our efforts to turn kids' lives around to simply increase our supervision and lay down some stricter rules and tough love?

Unfortunately, there was another factor at play. One of the conditions of YAP's funding was to monitor our progress with each kid, sort of a case file. We found that the new kids came and went on a much more frequent basis than the kids who had found their way into our facilities on their own. The new kids were turning the high "success rate" we had been achieving into disturbing rates of failure.

Before long, the drop-in centre basically went back to the way it used to be.

And the problems out on the streets have gotten bigger and bigger.

So, what went wrong?

First of all, the outreach workers quickly burned out. The job required them to go into dangerous neighbourhoods unknown and unannounced, often late at night when bad things happen. Who wants to take a chance meeting total strangers, many of whom might just as soon jack you up as befriend you.

And then if you do manage to get kids to buy what you are selling, you feel to blame for bringing disruptive, unsavoury characters into what had been a pretty positive mix. Most disheartening is the fact you may have caused the funding for the entire organization to be placed in jeopardy.

So the status quo was maintained. Kids who probably would have turned out pretty much OK on their own got some positive reinforcement by coming to the drop-in centre and the kids who remained outside were pretty much on their own. Except I noticed there were a few kids who "came in from the cold," found some warmth inside our gym and the hearts and minds of our staff, and found their way out of the Manitoba Youth Centre and into the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre. Maybe one in 10.

Thirty years have passed and some decent citizens and outstanding leaders have come out of the drop-in centre. We have also witnessed a sharp increase in the number of auto thefts and increased membership in a proliferation of so-called street gangs. When you consider the cost of each individual who comes into conflict with our criminal justice system (police, prosecutors, defence lawyers, judges, jails, probation and parole officers, halfway houses, counselling and rehabilitation/recidivism) perhaps we shouldn't have tied our funding to success rates and not considered keeping one out of 10 kids out of trouble a failure.

So today, while there are more organizations and services (and money being spent) than ever before, and more people being helped than ever before, the problems are bigger than ever before (if you believe what you read and hear in the media, or try to walk down Pritchard Avenue after midnight, or scrutinize available statistics from police and other authorities).

While we support the organizations for their existing success helping families and youth in our inner city make positive changes, we have to allow them more room to take risks and fail. We have to accept that maybe most of the people who cause most of the trouble cannot be reached but we can't be stopped short of trying. And while 90 per cent of them continue to raise havoc until we lock them away, we keep building on that 10 per cent we find success with and stop thinking in terms of failure rates so much.

Our priority has to be to find a way to reach these people who remain "outside the box" and bring them in.

 

Don Marks is a freelance writer and a former community development worker in Winnipeg's inner city.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2012 A10

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