Essential city anti-gang youth program on the verge of closing
The John Howard Society's YARD Program is making a last-ditch effort to secure federal funding, or else Hamilton's critical at-risk youth program will have to shut its doors as of Aug. 1.
The group has launched a "save YARD" initiative, and both Hamilton mayor Fred Eisenberger and local MP Bob Bratina have written to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in the hopes that funding can be found to keep the program afloat.
But without some sort of saviour on the horizon, program employees and teens alike are bracing for a cold reality without an essential local resource for at-risk youth and teens.
Among its most important work is pulling kids out of gangs, or interceding when they run the risk of joining one. The group's work was critical in the city during times when teen youth violence was on the rise.
"It would be a shitshow," said one of the program's teens, about the potential closure. She spoke Monday afternoon at YARD's space on Barton Street East. CBC News has agreed not to publish her name.
She says when she originally joined the program, she doubted she would even graduate from high school. Instead, she'd just stay home and get high.
"It I didn't get connected with YARD, I probably wouldn't be in college right now," she said.
I've seen young people who were using drugs daily, involved in negative peer groups, and I've watched them slowly start to change that.- Luis Caruso, youth worker
Over the last five years, the program has largely run off funding from the federal government through Public Safety Canada.
But that funding came with a limit, and John Howard isn't able to apply for the same cash again.
The program previously ran on $800,000 a year with a research component, but with that research completed, could now run on around $600,000 a year, said Ruth Greenspan, the program's executive director.
"Saving YARD is our priority and our mission," she said.
The group says it has gotten 890 referrals for at-risk youth from police and social workers since 2014, and 580 of those have at some point become a client.
Its youth workers spend nights in the hospital with teens who are having suicidal thoughts or who have been sexually assaulted. They do everything from helping connect young people to shelter networks, to cooking meals for people who don't have any food at home.
"I've seen young people who were using drugs daily, involved in negative peer groups, and I've watched them slowly start to change that," said youth worker Luis Caruso.
"My biggest concern is … we service so many young people who fall through the cracks, and there aren't other options for them."
Ministry representatives did not immediately respond to questions about funding.
On Thursday, Eisenberger said that the YARD program's work is "invaluable and preventative."
"These are largely preventative programs that save us money in the long term, if this is about money," Eisenberger said.
"I would very much encourage the federal government to continue funding."