5 ways to fight youth gun violence in Hamilton
Representatives from almost 30 city and youth organizations met at city hall Tuesday to figure out how to stop a mounting youth gun violence problem punctuated by public shootouts in Hamilton in recent months.
Though the two-hour conversation centred mostly on high-level planning and not tangible, street-level initiatives, the group committed to creating a plan to change the city's tide of recent violence.
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"When we have gunplay in the streets and people taking shots in a coffee house … it's time for us to be concerned," Mayor Fred Eisenberger said.
Here are five things the group discussed that could help curb youth violence in the city:
1. Get to the guns and those most at risk
While Hamilton has a wealth of youth initiatives, reaching the people actually shooting at each other in the streets will be no easy task.
That's because teens who are buying guns have no interest in accessing social services, said David Lane, executive director of the Hamilton/Burlington arm of the John Howard Society.
"These are the most difficult young people to reach," Lane said.
For years, Hamilton's weapon of choice was knives – but lately, kids are turning to guns, Lane said. "Now, our kids tell us that they can get a gun in four hours."
Lane said the city needs to pour more resources into youth gang intervention, prevention and societal reintroduction to combat the issue.
2. Get more statistics
Most people at the meeting were curious about youth crime statistics – which police are quick to point out show that crime is decreasing.
From January to June this year, a gun was used 45 times in crimes such as assaults, robberies and homicides, which is lower than three of the previous four years.
But there's a big piece missing. Those numbers leave out a shooting in August that left an 18-year-old dead, two shootings earlier this month, and afternoon gunfire in August while children reportedly watched.
The overtly public nature of some of these shootings – like two people firing at each other on a public street into oncoming traffic – has left many concerned.
Sgt. John Alsbergas told the meeting that from January to July of this year, youth crime is down 13 per cent from last year.
3. Improve newcomer services
It took two people who weren't invited to the meeting (which was open to the public and media) to raise the issue of reaching out to newcomers and providing them better social services.
Shamso Elmi came to voice the concerns of the local Somali community, and said the city needs to do more to provide youth services to immigrants.
"Where are the newcomers going to fit at this table?" she asked the group – which was made up of predominantly middle-aged white men, with some women but very few visible minorities.
Four of her 13 children have been in trouble with the law at some point, Elmi said. But she has a difficult time accessing services and finding help, especially in her first language.
"As newcomers, we need knowledge," she said. "I need to know where to go to find services."
Thanh Campbell, who also came to the meeting of his own accord, said it's important to pay attention to Elmi's words. "You need to be able to support people in their own language."
4. Make it a youth-led strategy
Whatever shape this strategy ends up taking (which at this early stage wasn't clear), everyone agreed that young people need to be part of shaping it.
"If there's no engagement from youth, then they won't be invested in this process," said Glen Harkness, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hamilton. "They need to be involved from the beginning."
There were no young people at Tuesday's meeting – though Eisenberger said a second session is planned for late October that involves teens recommended by local youth organizations.
But Campbell questioned whether they could give a real account of what life is like for Hamilton's most at risk youth. "You need to talk to the kid who is just about to buy a gun – and that's a tough one to reach," he said.
5. Improve education
Everyone agreed that the more we improve education uptake and graduation rates, the better off the city will be.
"If we believe that education decreases life challenges for students, we need to as a community come around to that indication," said Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB).
The Hamilton public board's graduation rates are below the provincial average. Eighty-four per cent of students in the province graduate high school within five years of starting, compared to 77 per cent at the HWDSB.
The Catholic school board's five-year graduation rates meet the provincial standard.
"The school boards are willing to say … where do we take this from here?" Figueiredo said.
With files from Kelly Bennett