In a time when youth crime is rising and teenagers are facing charges in connection with murders, home invasions and assaults, the city is in danger of losing one of its most important frontline services to combat youth gang involvement.

The John Howard Society's YARD Program is an initiative that supports youth who are in a gang or at risk of joining one — and it only has the funding to run until the summer of 2018.

"We have to find a funding source at this point to continue," said Ruth Greenspan, executive director. "We are seeing a ton of youth, and we're really concerned about what's going to happen if we cease to exist.

"The need is huge."

Over the last four years, the program has largely run off funding from the federal government through Public Safety Canada. However, that funding came with a five-year limit, and John Howard isn't able to apply for the same funds again.

The need for YARD's services is underscored by a rise in youth crime in Hamilton that bucks a downward trend seen across the rest of the country.

Youth crime increased in Hamilton for the first time in eight years in 2016, with a dramatic jump in violent crime as part of the new numbers.

A report that went to the police services board in May showed the number of young people aged 12 to 17 involved in crime rose 1.5 per cent in Hamilton, to a total of 1,595 youth.

Meanwhile, youth crime levels dropped by two per cent across the country.

Teens charged in connection with murders and stolen guns

Violent crime was up among that demographic in the city too, rising by 18 per cent compared to the year before. In 2016, 510 young people were involved in violent crime.

Police have also been kept busy with a series of serious incidents involving teens in recent months.

Detectives announced in June that they arrested a 16-year-old and charged him with second-degree murder in connection with the death in early June of Hamilton man Dwayne Bride.

police jesse clarke murder

Police spent days in an east end neighbourhood where 14-year-old Jesse Clarke was killed in 2014. Clarke's death drew massive attention to Hamilton's youth gang problem. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Three teenagers and an 18-year-old also face charges after police found several stolen guns during a search of a home near a local elementary school last month.

Then earlier in June, three 17-year-old girls were arrested and charged with second-degree murder in connection with the death of a man who was found at a Stoney Creek gas station, covered in blood.

Two teenagers were also arrested after a home invasion and shooting in Hamilton's east end back in May that left one man battling life-threatening injuries.

'They don't feel like they belong'

Donna de Jong, manager of adult justice and administration with the John Howard Society of Hamilton and Burlington, told CBC News that the need for support for at risk young people is always there — it just gets noticed more when incidents like those make the news.

"We work with young people in our community who face significant barriers," de Jong said. They deal with a lack of community and a sense of isolation, she said, alongside racism, the fentanyl crisis, and economic issues. 

 "They don't feel like they belong," she said. "A lot of the young people we see are really living in poverty."

Greenspan says that the program has gotten 744 referrals in the last four years, and that increasingly, younger people are becoming involved in gang activity. "People are entering into this a lot younger than 10 years ago," she said.

But in the face of a lot of sadness, there are plenty of success stories, Greenspan says. People who successfully complete the program often go back to school, or move on to post-secondary classes.

"Most of the youth make very positive changes when they finish," she said.

Now, John Howard representatives are reaching out to both the city and the province, in hopes that they can secure a funding source to stay open past next summer.

"If we closed, it would leave a huge gap," Greenspan said. "And it's a gap that won't get filled."

adam.carter@cbc.ca