When I look at my forearms I see a lot of burn marks and scars, reminders of past experiences that have quite literally left their mark. While some of those marks are from me being my usual “logic and safety have taken a holiday” self, a fair number of those marks are from my time working with street youth. And where I live, in Hamilton, Ontario, there are a lot of them. If you take a walk through the city core, you’ll see groups of street kids fairly frequently. One of the harsh realities of Hamilton is that it has a higher rate of poverty, higher rates of youth drug and alcohol abuse and lower rate of school attendance than many other cities in Ontario.
This sets the stage for where so many of the youth I’ve worked from have had their beginnings but there are two other big factors in why there are so many street youth in Hamilton.
The first is that Hamilton has a very high immigrant population. This isn’t to say that immigrants are purposely creating a problem but rather that immigrants tend to have lower incomes and fewer opportunities due to being new the area. This creates the conditions for at-risk youth to emerge from.
The second factor is that Hamilton is what I call a “triangle city”, in that because of it’s geographical location, it tends to get youth from three directions: those from the southwestern, mostly rural area out towards London, those from the Niagara region directly south of here, and finally those who want to make it in Toronto to the east of here but ultimately can’t. In some ways it’s almost a perfect storm for creating a toxic environment for at-risk youth: a place with a high poverty rate, low incomes and a centralized location.
When I think back to many of the kids I’ve worked with, a very similar set of traits emerges: these kids are usually from low-income families, are often from broken homes, and have been exposed to alcohol and drug addiction as well as different forms of abuse. Their behavior is often very similar: a strong mistrust of any form of authority, such as the police or social work agencies, frequent use of recreational drugs and alcohol as ways of coping, and aggressive behavior when they feel threatened or disrespected in even a minor way.
One of the more unfortunate side effects of Hamilton’s economic and social structure is the prevalence of gangs in the city, particularly the downtown core and east end. There’s a misconception that gangs are always territorial, that it’s about “turf”. In my experience the gangs have been much more fluid, often operating in diverse parts of the city. I’ve heard of gang members going to entry points such as a border crossings and airports to pick up drugs and weapons smuggled into the country, then running those weapons and drugs to various points around the Hamilton area. Do I want to know if it’s true? Well, I’d prefer to think in this case that ignorance really is bliss.
It’s easy to turn a blind eye to what these kids go through, to say “their circumstances are of their own making”, and while that is partially true, many of the kids I’ve worked with are where they are because of socio-economic forces far beyond their control. I’ve often found the kids were much more intelligent than you might expect. What surprised me also is when I’d tell them this I’d often get the same reply: “No one’s ever said that to me before”. It would seem, unfortunately, that intelligence has been seen as a commodity on the streets, just like anything else.
I was inspired to write about Hamilton’s at-risk youth because of two occurrences recently. Within a couple hours of each other I had two friends ask if I would come in and speak to them about at-risk youth and street gangs. I agreed to both but was surprised because I haven’t worked one-on-one with the kids in a few years. I spent time looking into the facts and figures about Hamilton and street youth, gang culture and was saddened to discover that despite the passage of time, nothing much has changed.
Was I really expecting there to be any big changes? Well, no, not really. I know that sounds pessimistic and even cynical, but I have my reasons. For all the different circumstances, backgrounds and personal differences there were, two symbiotic beliefs made themselves known time and time again. The first belief is a positive one: “there is a better world out there than what I currently know and am living in”. It’s the secondary belief, however, that makes all the difference: “For whatever reason, be it social standing, past choices, lack of education, criminal convictions, I don’t deserve and can never achieve that world”.
The kids echo thoughts expressed by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who wrote in Development as Freedom that the lack of freedom to make meaningful choices, to be able to change one’s situation, is the distinguishing feature of poverty. The kids don’t believe they can change their life, and in that choice have unfortunately made what will most likely become a self-fulling prophecy.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with is seeing kids being given everything they need to rise above the despair, such as a safe place to live, a stable source of money, and education or work opportunities, and then seeing them choosing to throw it away. Why would someone do that? It can be that being in a new, safe environment is too overwhelming because you’re always expecting something to go wrong, that there has to be some catch to the opportunity. Another reason for throwing it away is the fear of losing those you’re close to, that you won’t fit in anymore if you start getting your life on track. There is also a fear many of us know: the fear of the unknown. One way of phrasing this is “I’ll take the pain I know over the pain I don’t”, even if that unfamiliar situation will ease after some time to adjust is taken.
The reason I found that was most common among girls was a guy would come along, say all the right words, and then the guy became their whole world. Too often I heard guys saying to these girls “I love you”. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what “I love you” really turned out to mean.
Another problem I encountered with trying to help kids rise above was that often a family member, usually a parent, would do whatever they could to get their hands on any social assistance the youth might be receiving such as an allowance from the Children’s Aid Society or welfare or disability payments or a work program. Whether it was disguised as “you should pay your fair share around here” or “think of all the things I’ve sacrificed for you” or a similar guilt trip, too many times the money meant for helping an at-risk youth find stability went to feed the family member’s need for drugs, alcohol and other vices. Why did the kids usually willingly allow their money to be taken? Simple: who, ultimately, doesn’t want to feel their parents love them and need them?
This misuse of money often had a heart-breaking consequence for the youth in question. I’ve known youth to start prostituting themselves out to get some money for food and clothing. I’ve more than once turned a blind eye to kids dealing drugs, knowing it wasn’t about becoming a big time dealer but simply about getting enough money to get something to eat and somewhere warm to stay.
Unfortunately for the kids, having a family member steal their money was actually a desirable occurrence compared to some of the situations I’ve seen. In trying to help the kids find a better life, I’ve had to deal with parents who were drunk, regardless of what time of day it is, weapons pointed at me as soon as I entered the door, threats and ethnic slurs yelled at me and cigarettes put out my skin as form of intimidation. I knew of one youth who had a roommate who would chain and padlock the fridge so no one else could get any food. My wife and I would occasionally buy extra food when we’d go grocery shopping so that he’d have something substantial to eat.
With the odds seemingly stacked against them, several of the kids I knew turned to gangs as a way to survive on the streets. The idea of joining a gang was glamorous. It was the promise that if you join up, you’ll be respected, if not feared, and that whatever you want, whether it’s money, cars, clothes, jewelry, or sex would be yours for the taking. Unfortunately too many of the kids who turned to gangs found out too late that this promise was a false one. To give you an idea of gang life, initiation would often consist of you fighting three gang members simultaneously for as long as you could. If you held out long enough you were admitted in.
Joining a gang, where working with street kids is concerned, often had consequences the youths never intended. More than once I knew of kids who were beaten up for being mistaken as opposing gang members simply for being in the wrong area at the wrong time, or dressing the wrong way. Another consequence is that youth shelters and programs were considered off limits. The thought among gangs was “why would you go to them when we give you everything you need”. I can recall more than once very scary incidents were members of different gangs did show up at the same youth-oriented program. Luckily none of those times ever escalated beyond posturing and trash talk but the possibility of real violence, with innocent kids caught in the middle, was very real.
I know the picture I’m painting is bleak, but I want you to fully understand how real and dangerous things can be for youth. I want you to truly grasp the unfortunate nature of poverty when it comes to youth. There are upsides though. For example, there were (and still are) many people in the downtown core who devoted their lives to trying to make Hamilton a better place and providing opportunities for those most vulnerable to poverty’s destructive consequences. From social workers to police officers to even some shop owners, I met many people who believed in the potential of the street kids they saw every day.
One question I often get asked is “how do we solve this problem? What solution is there to helping Hamilton’s street youth?” and I always find myself answering “honestly, I don’t know”. I do know that there isn’t some magic cure-all, some silver bullet that will end poverty and it’s affects on youths once and for all. The sad fact is that despite being in two of the wealthiest nations on earth, child poverty is a very real fact across Canada and the United States.
I’ve often been told “well, if we build more infrastructure” or “if we set up more programs” or “if we just got more funding”… and while those things sound good, I know in my heart that those good intentions won’t make a great difference simply because what good are programs and funding and infrastructure when those you’re trying to help have a strong mistrust of anything to do with “the system”.
I’ve known teen moms to skip child custody hearings simply because they don’t trust the legal justice system. I’ve known youths to skip probation hearings because they believe the cops will plant evidence on them. In both situations the same thing happens: the case is decided against them and the court decision they wanted to avoid happens anyway, reinforcing the youth’s belief there is no justice or fairness and making them even more bitter against those who could offer them a chance at a better life.
When I started this article, I said “When I look at my forearms I see a lot of burn marks and scars, reminders of past experiences that have quite literally left their mark”. “Reminders of past experiences”. Past tense. Some of you might be asking why I don’t work with street kids still. Well, a big part of it is I was getting burned out. As time went on, I found myself exhausted physically, emotionally and even spiritually. I did get injured working with street kids, especially when dealing with those involved in gangs and dealing drugs because they were often the most aggressive and the most likely to carry weapons.
That kind of environment wears on you. It’s telling that two professions with very high rates of burn out are policing and social work. And it doesn’t just wear you down, it can wear down those you love. I had a long relationship end because my girlfriend was tired of the stress of worrying about how things would go with the youth. “What if a fight breaks out”, “what if one of them is armed”, “is that neighborhood really somewhere that’s worth going, even if it’s to help someone out”. I completely get where she was coming from.
Working with street youth is honestly something I don’t always miss. It’s surreal to walk into an apartment complex and immediately hear people yelling out their windows at me “are you a cop? Because if you are, you need to leave or else”. That has happened to me on more than one occasion. It’s tough to want to keep trying when all too often all the hard work, time and effort you put into helping someone is just tossed aside when it’s time for the youth to do their part.
All that said, I still advocate whenever I can for the places the street youth frequent, such as The Living Rock. Sometimes the best way to help someone is to shed light on their struggles. The more people that know about a situation, the more likely someone will take action to find a solution. right?
My heart goes out to the kids I’ve worked with because many times they’re in the situation they’re in because of circumstances far beyond their control. I try to remind myself of that when I find I’m frustrated and losing my patience with them. Even when I look at the scars they’ve inflicted on my body from physical attacks they’ve done, I have to keep reminding myself that they’re acting out of the social education they’ve received and that, almost always, it’s nothing personal towards me. I can’t be angry when I know they’re acting out of a deep hurt and mistrust.
I remind myself that they’ve gone into bad situations and gangs for the hope of finding a way to shield themselves from the pain and fear that so often dominates their lives. I remind myself that when you strip everything away, all the bravado and swagger, all the gang colors, euphemisms and weaponry, you’re left with kids who ultimately want to know they matter, that they have worth and that they can be loved for who they are. Too often I’ve found it to be that the kid has put up this tough exterior because they don’t want to break.
Isn’t that ultimately why we do so many things we know deep down will hurt us… because we’re scared of breaking?
*Author’s note: if you’re interested in further reading, please check out these two links:
Amartya Sen’s summation of the problem of poverty and crime
The John Howard Society of Hamilton’s gang prevention guide