Huddle at a spot – the park, someone’s backyard or any other place we could find – to vent, console and talk about the shooting that just happened. This was normal as a young man growing up in Toronto’s St. James Town neighbourhood. Unfortunately, this huddling continues to happen all across Toronto with no end in sight.
So what is the issue?
Is it just young people with guns killing each other? Or is it because they lack the necessary support to enable progress in these communities? Gun violence is a symptom of other deep-rooted issues, such as unemployment or underemployment, inadequate supports for foreign-trained professionals, an education system that cannot engage all its students and poverty in our communities. We need bold and visionary leadership to begin identifying and minimizing those issues.
Our society has created low-income housing communities to support our most vulnerable citizens, which was and continues to be a positive step. But we stopped short of providing the support needed to move this population out of vulnerability and into a position of strength. Citizens who live in low-income communities may be new to the country and need some time to adjust to their new lives and to get to know the systems. They may be single parents who cannot afford to raise their children, put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads at the same time. Or they may have physical and mental-health challenges that can minimize their earning potential. With intersecting issues such as these, we cannot just provide low-income housing without other supports. The consequences can be catastrophic.
The people in these communities need social activities and job training, as well as reintegration, orientation and alternative education programs. These programs give these citizens an opportunity to become self-sufficient. At some point in our lives, we’ve all received a leg up. This is an opportunity to do the same for others. Gun violence is the result of these lacking and diminishing supports. We’ve created social housing, but let’s not stop there. Let’s also provide the necessary social supports.
Who will pay for these supports? We need a co-ordinated effort involving government, the private sector and labour. Government cannot step away now; these communities need consistent investment to ensure that young people have equal opportunities to succeed. Our government is responsible for providing that equal playing field to ensure that all citizens can contribute. And the private sector and labour have a moral responsibility to ensure safe and healthy working and living environments.
With equal access to prosperity, we can begin to build a city in which all citizens are able to contribute regardless of personal circumstances. With the austerity measures being implemented at all levels of government, it will be hard to sustain the necessary level of community investment. But the alternative does not build the long-term capacity of our city and country. If we do not continue to invest, the health, reputation and financial viability of our city will diminish.
With sustained investment in these communities, as well as accountability measures to ensure effective services, we will begin to see returns on our investments as young men and women graduate from high school and university and begin contributing to society.
So, do we have the bold leadership to act? To invest for the long term? To stand up for the city we want to build, in which all residents are given an equal opportunity to grow?
Lekan Olawoye is executive director of Toronto’s For Youth Initiative, a United Way member agency.