Abbotsford anti-gang youth program losing vital funding

Abbotsford anti-gang youth program losing vital funding

In It Together program co-ordinator says six months without funding could mean years of setbacks

On a late-July afternoon, Harley Jones practises a new hip hop song in a second-floor space of an Abbotsford Community Services building. He just came back from his first B.C. tour, performing his music for crowds in 18 spots across the province.

Just a few years prior, he was stabbed in the wrist while selling drugs.

Had he continued on the path he had been taking at just 14 years old, Jones said by now he would likely be dead or in jail.

Now 19 years old, Jones credits the turnaround to the In It Together program, which offers services such as case management, youth outreach, parent and youth groups, recreation, essential skills and counselling for at-risk youth and their families. But the program itself is now at risk, with federal funding set to end on Sept. 30, no opportunity to regain funding for six months, and no guarantee that it will come through in April.

For Jones, the wake-up call came violently when he was 14 or 15 years old.

He was selling drugs at the time and he often walked past the police station, which he lived close to. But with others spotting him walking near the building, someone became suspicious that he had spoken with police.

He was put up to a deal set to go bad, and he was stabbed with a knife through his wrist.

“That had changed my whole perspective on everything, and I realized that it was time to do something else in my life, because it’s not really worth it,” Jones said.

He went into hiding for four or five months, all the while slowly getting back into school as part of a probation order. Through his program, separate from regular schooling, he was approached by someone from Abbotsford Community Services.

“It seemed like he actually cared about my well-being, other than just making another dollar or just being a talker,” Jones said, adding that the support worker would take him to fields to play lacrosse, play video games, take him to school when he needed a ride or even just talk. “Anything I could literally think of.”

Having that support, as the In It Together program was kicking off, was part of what helped Jones to build himself back up. But Jones said one of the biggest things the program did was to give him an avenue to write and record music, even setting him up with recording tools at home.

“When I started getting into the recording, I wanted to learn everything so that I could help more kids,” Jones said. “I wanted to learn so I could bring kids in and help them, too, for kids that were like me that didn’t have the stuff to do it. … It got to the point where I was getting shows.”

Jones is hardly alone in that kind of turnaround. Alison Gutrath, community co-ordinator of IIT, said the program has reached 1,500 individual youths, either through one of its youth programs, one of its programs for parents, or both.

In Abbotsford, gang activity appears to be in flux, with two homicides within the last month and a recent Abbotsford Police Department news release warning people against being near or associating with a local 19-year-old. Last year, the Abbotsford-Mission metropolitan area saw the second-highest homicide rate in the country.

It’s impossible to say how many youths the program has actually prevented from entering gangs, but nearly half of those currently in the program are involved or have “strong affiliations” with gangs.

“That’s kind of a reality here. So some of the youth are dealing drugs, some of the youth are using drugs and giving them to friends, which is also dealing. They just don’t think of it that way,” Gutrath said.

“So some of those youth, they’re not always identifying. Quite often a youth is not going to identify how high of a risk they actually are, and it’s not until someone is able to point out to them what’s going on, or they get in over their heads with criminal involvement.”

And if the program can’t maintain funding for the six months between Sept. 30 and next April, Gutrath said it would be “a devastating setback to a proven and successful program.”

Those six months could translate to years worth of setbacks., Gutrath said. If those working in the program move on to other jobs, she said a renewed program with new staff would take a long time to reach the fluidity and expertise it currently has.

She said the program needs $423,000 to provide essential services in the six months for the highest risk youth and their families

Jones said he’s living proof of the program’s success – his relationship with his mother had faltered after his father died and as he descended into that lifestyle. Now, he and his mother are “best friends,” and, on top of that, he’s living his dream. With a recording studio in his room, he said he’s not only able to record his own music, but help kids in similar positions.

“It felt amazing to be the person that I wanted when I was younger,” Jones said.

“I feel like watching myself go from what I was to just getting off my first B.C.-Fraser Valley tour, dropping my album on Aug. 11. It’s crazy to see that I did that myself. So if I can do that, I can do anything. If I was capable of surviving what I survived to do this, then I’m OK with doing anything else.”

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Dustin Godfrey | Reporter

@dustinrgodfrey

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