Anti-gang youth workers have continued to support at-risk youth in Abbotsford with modified services to meet the unique challenges that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The In It Together program – part of Archway Community Services – seeks to disrupt the flow of youth into gangs through one-to-one interventions and working with their families.
They support youth at risk of gang involvement due to family ties, suspected drug use or previous trauma. They also work with youth already criminally involved, on probation, or facing charges.
Harpreet Singh, an In It Together youth worker, said addiction issues have been “pretty intense” during this time.
“Youth have more free time with virtual schooling and some have been laid off from their jobs, so the potential to get in trouble is greater,” he said.
Normally, staff bond with clients through in-person conversations, activities and shared meals. During COVID-19, the support has largely shifted to online, with physically distanced meetings where necessary.
Staff have adapted their support to clients to include ensuring access to technology and job-searching support. In some cases, they have advocated for clients on probation with technology restrictions to ensure they can continue their education virtually.
“Finishing high school is a key factor in ensuring clients have alternatives to being in gangs,” said Alison Gutrath, the program community doordinator. “Once a youth leaves school, they have fewer job prospects and less positive social contacts.”
In addition to practical support like homework help, youth workers help youth understand the severity of COVID and provide emotional support and suggest coping mechanisms.
Some clients are referred to school counsellors, mental health supports or addiction recovery groups. Youth workers give advice on protecting youth from sexual exploitation and how to safely use dating apps.
“Home isn’t the easiest place to be for these youth so many are still interacting with their friends in unsupervised ways and still connecting via social media,” Singh said.
A dedicated family educator works with parents to help them conduct family meetings, deal with conflicts or anxiety and with emergency fund applications as needed. Parents may also have addictions or mental health issues that have exacerbated during these times.
In some families, grocery vouchers or Archway Food Bank hampers arranged by staff helped lessen the pressure on youth to earn money in illegals ways.
Staff are currently supporting 76 clients along with 28 family clients. The clients range in age from 12 to 22 with 56 male and 20 female clients.
With the equivalent of only six employees, staff’s caseloads are at maximum capacity and there are 38 youth on their wait list.
“It’s very hard for us to turn people away, but at the same time, if we take on too much we can’t give youth the level of support they need,” said family educator Manpreet Sarai.
“COVID hit everyone a little differently and the program has personalized our support to each client’s needs. The overall goal is to keep youth safe from gangs with a holistic approach to their mental, physical and financial wellness.”
After federal funding for the program came to an end in 2018, the program capacity has remained reduced. The program is currently supported with provincial government funding and funding from the United Way of the Lower Mainland since 2018.
Donations to support Archway In It Together program can be made at Archway.ca/Donate