A proposal before council to eliminate the city's priority neighbourhood designation could backfire on vulnerable young people living in areas grappling with high unemployment, crime and a dearth of public amenities, according to some high-profile advocates including former Ontario chief justice Roy McMurtry.
Yet former Toronto Argonauts star and coach Michael "Pinball" Clemons, who has raised millions of dollars through the Youth Challenge Fund for programs targeted specifically to those areas, says council now needs to consider whether there are other underserved areas in the city besides the 13 designated communities.
"Are those the most needy?" he said in an interview from Florida. "The next step may be taking that label away."
It's a controversial point. Mr. McMurtry, who in 2004 co-chaired a community safety panel established by then-mayor David Miller, rejected comments made last week by councillors Vince Crisanti and Giorgio Mammoliti, who said the priority neighbourhoods policy isn't working and may even be making things worse.
In a letter to a council committee calling on the city to dismantle the policy, Mr. Crisanti said the priority neighbourhood label scares away investment and creates a stigma. During a session of the Community Development and Recreation committee, Mr. Mammoliti, the chair, dismissed the funds spent to date in the 13 designated communities as "handouts" that haven't alleviated poverty.
"I just don't agree with that assessment," Mr. McMurtry said in an interview this week. "I strongly believe that there has to be a process of identifying higher-needs neighbourhoods. Otherwise, [public funds]will be spread too thinly and it becomes meaningless."
Other community youth workers expressed concern that the loss of the priority neighbourhood label could undermine political support for policies geared to at-risk youth. "We can't lose the sense of urgency," said Stefany Hanson, a co-chair of the Youth Challenge Fund and a former member of Toronto's Youth Cabinet. "Getting rid of the designation doesn't get rid of the issue."
Former Liberal cabinet minister Alvin Curling, who co-chaired the 2008 "Roots of Youth Violence" task force with Mr. McMurtry, said that residents of neighbourhoods such as Jane-Finch, in North York, and Malvern, in Scarborough, struggle with stigmatization. "I'm not one who believes we should be naming high-priority neighbourhoods."
Mr. Clemons agreed, but added, "We don't want to fool ourselves. For the most part, those communities were already labelled." He said he hoped to collaborate with Mayor Rob Ford to ensure that the needs of underprivileged youth are not ignored.
Mr. Curling challenged Mr. Ford to invite the federal and provincial governments to establish a partnership to develop comprehensive solutions to the mounting social problems associated with urban poverty. "The mayor can't do it on his own," said Mr. Curling, a former speaker of the legislature. 'If we don't, the old saying is, 'Pay me now or pay me later.' "
He also criticized the Ford administration for selling off affordable-housing units, saying such moves "send a signal that the problem lies within the poor."
The task force, established by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in the wake of the shooting of Toronto teenager Jordan Manners, published a detailed report in 2008. Mr. McMurtry and Mr. Curling identified disturbing trends toward increasingly concentrated youth violence, guns, gangs and "neighbourhoods trapped in a downward cycle of disadvantage."
They called for more streamlined provincial services for youth across Ontario and recommended, among other things, that municipalities and school boards work with Queen's Park to establish "community hubs." The task force also recommended a variation on the priority neighbourhood designation, proposing that provincial agencies rely on an "Index of Relative Disadvantage" to focus resources on particularly needy areas.
While Mr. Curling is urging Mr. Ford to work with the other levels of government, he said the task force has already done much of the heavy analytical lifting. "We already know the answers."
Mr. McMurtry, however, found the Ford administration's apparent reconsideration of a targeted approach to be troubling, especially in light of the federal Conservative push for longer sentences and more jails. "I personally worry a great deal that issues related to poverty aren't going to be given the priority they've long deserved."
However, Mr. Clemons said he welcomed the debate at council and felt it presented an opportunity to refocus the city's attention on the challenges facing young people growing up in troubled communities. "It doesn't matter what it's called as long as the work is done."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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