Community-based anti-gang strategy launches in Winnipeg amid funding cuts

Dozens of community groups have banded together to stop gang activity in Winnipeg, but organizers say they'll have to carry out their new strategy without the help they were relying on from the Manitoba government.

Group loses annual $75K in provincial funding before roll-out of new gang reduction plan

Jamil Mahmood is the chairperson for GAIN. (CBC)

Dozens of community groups have banded together to stop gang activity in Winnipeg, but organizers say they'll have to carry out their new strategy without the help they were relying on from the Manitoba government.

"They recently cut all of our funding," said Robyn Dryden, co-ordinator of the Gang Action Inter-Agency Network (GAIN). "That was a little bit disheartening to see that … they weren't willing to see this through."

Nearly 200 individuals, counsellors, youth, community groups, probation organizations and government departments were consulted in the making of GAIN's new anti-gang plan, "Bridging the Gaps: Solutions to Winnipeg Gangs."

The overarching strategy focuses on preventing kids from joining gangs, helping members get out and offering rehabilitation opportunities after gang life. That plan could be in jeopardy now, Dryden says, as GAIN's $75,000 in annual provincial funding runs out at the end of the summer.

"Those are little set backs," said Jamil Mahmo​od, executive director of the Spence Neighbourhood Association and a chairperson with GAIN. "This plan isn't a plan that asked for millions of dollars right up front to implement something. It's a plan that says, 'We know what's working in communities, we know these great initiatives exist.'

"Let's build on that work ... let's add more mentors where they're needed, let's make sure that gang-involved youth have access ... the services that are there."

How youth become targets

Dryden said the new approach outlines priority areas that need to be addressed to help keep people out of gangs and provide a host of supports if members decide to leave. 

GAIN's anti-gang strategy:

  • Development of 24/7 navigators to help people exit gangs.
  • Increasing availability of mentors/mentorship programs.
  • Culturally appropriate mental health/addictions services.
  • Eliminating accessibility barriers for recreation opportunities.
  • Increasing education/employment opportunities.
  • Increasing availability of culturally appropriate programming in general.
  • Fostering connections between young people and their community.
  • Public education on who joins gangs and why.

There are between 1,400 and 1,500 active youth gang members in Winnipeg, Dryden says, many of whom have a few important things in common.

"If you don't have your basic needs met at home, if you don't have that identity and belonging and that sense of purpose, anyone can become involved in gang activity, because gangs are really good at knowing how to meet the needs that aren't being met elsewhere," Dryden said.

Harmful stereotypes about what kind of people get involved in gang life don't help either, which is why GAIN hopes to change public perceptions on who ends up in gangs, Dryden said.

Gangs are savvy when it comes to luring youth into their ranks, Dryden says, because they offer new members a form of connection they maybe aren't getting at home, at school or through recreational sports teams.

Many gang members who get involved at a young age have been exposed to abuse in the home or experienced a range of other mental health and addictions issues in their lives, Dryden said.

That's why it's important that the right supports are in place to make exiting gangs easy and effective for members, Dryden said.

"Before you can do anything else, once you're trying to exit a gang, you really need to work on that healing component first, because if you're not whole and haven't dealt with those larger issues, you're not going to get a job or find ways to fill your time in a positive, pro-social way," Dryden said.

Barriers to accessing supports

Dryden said there are community-based initiatives already in Winnipeg devoted to reducing gang activity, but many barriers still get in the way of members accessing the help they need to transition out of gangs, Dryden said.

GAIN's new strategy targets people between the ages of six and 29 and focuses on prevention, intervention and suppression tactics to reduce gang membership in Winnipeg.

Dryden said with the network of 180 organizations acting as "navigators," they hope to be there in a crisis when someone decides to leave gang life behind and provide help along the way as they try to get jobs and readjust.

How the Gang Action Inter-Agency Network's new strategy is designed to work when a young person decides to leave a gang. (GAIN)

"Things like immediate basic needs, immediate safety concerns, immediate housing, immediate mental health and addictions supports. The idea is to have people in our network who can be [there]," Dryden said, adding GAIN has identified a need for workers available 24/7 who can help in these situations.

Const. Danny Smyth said GAIN's anti-gang strategy lines up with that of the Winnipeg Police Service.

"Lots of education, lots of awareness, lots of intervention; all of those things are important," he said. "It's really those diversionary programming things that are really going to help."

Dryden said several requests in recent months to meet with Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson, as well as Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, have gone unanswered. 

Rather than focus all of their attention directly on rolling out the new anti-gang strategy, Dryden says the group will have to expend more energy right now on applying for grants to cover their losses after the funding cuts.

"Our timeline will be shifted a little," she said. "But we'll just have to shuffle. We'll just have to kind of juggle those two priorities."