Youth gangs and crime in our backyard

(Graphic by Taylor Gayowsky)

When most people think of gang activity, it brings to mind images of the dangers of big city life and highly violent encounters between youth that have no place in quieter communities.

And yet, while awareness may be minimal, this is a problem which exists within smaller cities, including those in Waterloo Region.

In 2007, the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) received funding to open a guns and gangs unit, which will help monitor and address gang activity in the region.

“The municipal police services went to the government and said, ‘you know, this isn’t just a big city, Toronto problem, we’re also having these issues,’” said Sgt. Andy Harrington, who works with the guns and gangs unit.

Harrington said that local enforcement officers became more aware of the problem after Toronto’s targeting of the issue caused many gang members to relocate into other Southern Ontario communities, including Waterloo Region.

The unit closely monitors around 300 people who are believed to “have the highest risk to the community for public safety.” This involves working with youth from ages 13 into their mid-twenties to gather intelligence about weapons use and proactively take measures to avoid dangerous situations.

While law enforcement is one necessary component of addressing gang-related problems, it is a complex issue that is steeped in socioeconomic factors as well.

Joshua Dills, the associate director at Reaching Our Outdoor Friends (ROOF), a local organization with services directed toward at-risk youth, explained that there can be many background issues that would cause someone to be involved in a gang.

“For many of them it could be a matter of not having a sense of belonging in the community, not having a sense of belonging at home and utilizing a gang as sort of a surrogate family for themselves,” he said.

Underlining all of this is the feeling that they do not have the options or opportunities to succeed.

Dills continued, “It might be controversial to say, but the gang is filling their needs. Even though it’s filling it in an unhealthy way, it is filling it.”

However, he also acknowledged that attempting to convince members to leave their gangs could be highly detrimental, as there must be adequate supports in place sustain transition to a different lifestyle.

“It’s a matter of providing them with options so that they can make that choice for themselves when they’re ready,” Dills explained.

Providing a range of social services and increasing youth awareness of healthier ways to address their problems is crucial to alleviating this problem.

One organization which works toward street gang prevention in Waterloo Region is inREACH, a three year pilot program funded by the national crime prevention centre.

It partners with other community support groups, including ROOF, to work in the areas of intervention and prevention.

Rohan Thompson, who is the project manager for inREACH, agreed that the problem is more complicated than is often understood.

“If we have young people that are gang involved or at risk of gang involvement, or they have involvement with the criminal justice system, that’s typically what shows on the surface. That’s a manifestation of some other underlying problem,” he explained.

The funding for the program finishes in March 2013, and efforts are currently being taken to determine if additional support can be found to continue inREACH.

Thompson says that “There’s still significant work to be done.”

While the organizations do provide many social services and supports, bureaucratic barriers still exist that inhibit ideal levels of effectiveness from being attained.

“Because of policies and mandates from various, from different organizations and different systems, it’s difficult for any one organization to sort of provide comprehensive, all-encompassing type of support for this particular population,” Thompson stated.

Dills reiterated these sentiments, adding that, “We are trying to take step to connect the different resources so that we have more effective communication.”

Positive progress has still been seen, however, and the issue is not thought to be growing.

In addition, most of the regional population, with the exception of those who are directly involved in gang activity, are not impacted by the problem.

“We’re beginning to see a lot of community ownership around the issue and providing support and looking how to work with this particular population,” said Thompson.

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