Funding failure only way to impact inner-city problems

Current funding models for social agencies aren’t reaching the kids who need help

WINNIPEG, MB, Jan 12, 2014/ Troy Media/ – We have to start funding failure in Winnipeg’s core area.

Because if we only support success, the problems which plague our inner-city just get bigger.

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.

We weren’t reaching some kids so 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 that our office had been broken into overnight and our petty cash box was empty. So we started checking for “stowaways” before we closed down for the night.

“Hmm! These new drop in kids seem to be rather nasty little buggers!”

Pretty soon our outreach workers started spending more time helping out 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.

It looked like the negative activities we were experiencing were too much to handle and somebody had decided to go back to playing it safe. But would it not be in more 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” and we found that the new kids were the type who got into more trouble and they began to turn the high “success rate” we had been achieving into disturbing rates of failure. It is harder to get funding when you are failing.

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

And the problems out on the streets got bigger and bigger.

So the status quo was maintained. Kids who probably would have turned out pretty much okay 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.

Forty years have passed and some decent citizens and outstanding leaders have come out of the drop-in centre. We have also witnessed 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. You need to reach the kids who most need the help and to heck with the stats.

While we support social service organizations for their 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.

Troy Media’s Eye on Manitoba columnist Don Marks is a Winnipeg-based writer.

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