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‘priority’ neighbourhoods

Jam Johnson, who runs a basketball boot camp in Scarborough, also coaches kids in nutrition and job searches.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

When Mayor Rob Ford, Premier Dalton McGuinty and Police Chief Bill Blair gather at Queen's Park Monday to talk guns and gangs, there will be echoes of the political summits that followed the so-called Summer of the Gun.

But that doesn't mean Toronto will see a repeat of the all-hands-on-deck approach that followed 2005, when 79 were killed, including Jane Creba, the 15-year-old shot on Boxing Day.

At that time, the provincial and municipal governments poured cash into policing and community programs, particularly in 13 poverty-stricken "priority" neighbourhoods that the United Way and city council had already identified as most in need.

This moment is different. While Monday night's mass shooting on Danzig Street has elicited the same calls for action, the political players and the size of their pocketbooks have changed.

Constrained by a $15-billion deficit, Mr. McGuinty said this week he's not sure he can afford to extend the Youth Challenge Fund (YCF), a $46-million investment in priority neighbourhoods set to end in March. He's not keen to make a knee-jerk decision on funding more police, either.

That's what Mr. Ford wants out of Monday's meeting. He prefers beefed-up prison sentences and vague threats of gangster expulsion to what he calls "hug-a-thug" programs, a philosophy that led him to cast the lone vote against 312 community grants worth more than $16-million at council this month. (He also voted against accepting $350,000 in free federal money for an anti-gang program in June.)

One of those grants, worth $40,000 this year, was the sole source of financial support for Kingston-Galloway's Neighbourhood Basketball Association, where 14-year-old Shyanne Charles spent Saturdays in the No Books, No Basketball program before she was shot to death at the Danzig Street party just outside the priority area's border.

Toronto's new financial and political reality raises questions about the future of the priority neighbourhood approach, which advocates say helped tamp down youth crime until this summer's spike in shootings.

"I think it made a very significant difference," Chief Blair said of the $230-million that streamed into struggling inner-suburban communities after the Summer of the Gun. "We have seen the evidence of those investments."

However, even champions of the priority neighbourhood program say it has shortcomings.

The most glaring problem? There is no concrete way to measure whether the money that went into the 13 priority pockets between 2005 and 2011 has done any good.

"One of the things that we're trying to do better is tracking all of those [investments] in greater detail," said Denise Campbell, director of community resources for the city. "The measuring of the impact and what the outcomes are is another thing we aim to strengthen in the new strategy."

The original priority neighbourhood strategy arose out of the United Way's landmark 2004 report "Poverty by Postal Code," which revealed Toronto's worst-off residents had congregated in the bleak inner suburbs, far from transit and social services.

Piggybacking on the study, city council in 2005 adopted a philosophy of directing grants and other supports into the 13 struggling neighbourhoods. When private donations and public money began flowing in after the Summer of the Gun and the Creba shooting, the priority neighbourhoods strategy gave an alphabet soup of agencies – including the province's new YCF and some existing city programs – a physical location to direct their money.

In March of this year, council quietly tweaked and extended the strategy for another eight years.

Dubbed the Toronto Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy 2020, the revamped program replaces the phrase "priority neighbourhoods" – which had become a euphemism for the ghetto – with "neighbourhood improvement areas." It demands greater accountability through a massive database of indicators that Ms. Campbell hopes can be used to scientifically measure impact, and to pinpoint other neighbourhoods in need as early as this fall.

What the priority neighbourhoods program lacks in hard data, it makes up for in on-the-ground tales of the difference it has made.

It's worth noting that at least three of the victims in the Danzig Street shootout participated in programs funded by the YCF.

Shyanne attended the Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough, where she shone as a singer, recording a track that made a compilation album produced in the club's new recording studio.

Joshua Yasay, 23, the second person killed in Monday's tragedy, volunteered for two years with the Learning Disabilities Association of Toronto, another YCF recipient, in the priority neighbourhood of Malvern.

"He was an example of what we all should aspire to be," said Katie Bushie, a program manager.

Marlon King, a promising basketball player shot in the hand during Monday night's melee, played ball at the Boys and Girls Club and at the city-funded Neighbourhood Basketball Association run by Jam Johnson.

"I try to find the guys at risk," Mr. Johnson said, adding that he was once in that position himself.

Beyond basketball, he teaches them to eat right, buy groceries and prepare for job interviews.

Pamela Grant, the executive director of the Youth Challenge Fund, said the sunsetting of the program in March 2013 won't end the changes it spawned. The fund, paid for by the province and United Way donors, was always time-limited; at least 21 of the most successful programs will continue through other agencies.

As YCF, the United Way and the city all try to learn lessons from the priority neighbourhood program, Toronto police are taking lessons from the neighbourhood-based policing approach that, until this summer, contributed to a steady decline in homicides.

In 2011, Toronto recorded its fewest murders in three decades.

That's why Mr. Ford will be asking for more funding for officers for the Toronto Violence Intervention Strategy, or TAVIS, when he goes to Queen's Park on Monday – despite the province having already committed $35-million to the program.

Mr. Ford, who campaigned on hiring 100 new police officers, has demanded budget restraints that will leave the force short 200 officers by the end of 2012, according to Chief Blair. He's shuffled resources so those reductions aren't felt on the street. "We're trying to find smarter ways to do the things that we have to do," Chief Blair said. "But I still think cops count and I need to keep cops in those neighbourhoods."

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