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Stabbing highlights gap in youth services on Commercial Drive

There’s a lot for teens to do on Commercial Drive, from basketball to pottery to pumpkin carving. But if they’re…

By Pauline Holdsworth , in City , on October 16, 2013 Tags: , , , , , ,

Mural of teens at Britannia
Along the walkway in the Britannia centre, murals mirror the groups of teenagers meeting up for the night.

There’s a lot for teens to do on Commercial Drive, from basketball to pottery to pumpkin carving.

But if they’re looking for crisis support, they’re out of luck.

That’s something Cynthia Low, the executive director of Britannia Community Services Centre, is hoping to change following a stabbing in September last month.

A 17-year old was slashed in the throat. It heightened tensions between teens and local adults who sometimes believe crime is rampant in the area.

“These kids, believe it or not, they love Britannia. They may not look like it, because sometimes they set fire to our book drop, but they love this place,” said Low.

What these teenagers need, community volunteers say, isn’t more recreation opportunities. Nor do they need more criticism from adults in the neighbourhood.

Outreach rather than recreation

Britannia staff – who are trained to teach kids basketball, not lead community interventions – struggle with the lack of external support for marginalized youth.

Hockey game at Britannia ice rink
The rink at the Britannia centre is filled with the sounds of clashing hockey sticks and cheering.

“Part of it is that there is no safe house for kids if you are under the influence,” Low said.

“We’re doing everything from these little things [on the site] to trying to encourage the government to reinvest in safe houses, particularly accessible safe houses for young people.”

Low said staff plan to repurpose some of the centre’s space to focus on teen outreach instead of recreation.

“We want to change the teen centre away from being a games room to more of a social-service model, to a social-service centre where young people can get some help and support,” she said.

Since teenagers gather naturally at the site and clearly love it, Low said it’s important to reach them there instead of directing them elsewhere.

“We don’t kick the kids off the site, because we know there’s nowhere else for them to go,” Low said.

Victims of crime

Adrian Archambault, a co-ordinator at the community policing centre, said residents often think of Britannia as an unsafe place, but those perceptions are often inaccurate and contribute to teens’ social isolation.

“We deal a lot with fear of crime, but the actual crime is more important, and it’s actually the youth that are more likely to be [victimized],” he said.

His volunteers have stepped up patrol efforts on the Britannia site since the stabbing. But their primary concern is building a safety net, not surveillance.

When the centre receives complaints about teenage activity on the site, he encourages residents to talk to teens directly. He hopes these relationships will strengthen the safety net his volunteers are trying to build.