Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Regina gang solution touted
Conference told how 24/7 approach helps.
Only two months out of jail, the man in the low-slung baseball cap and slouchy hoodie stood before 200 people in the basement of the Delta Hotel, took a breath and let a lifetime of gang violence fall away.
"I've done a lot of things," said the 25-year-old, who asked not to be named for safety reasons. "But I'd rather suffer in this life than suffer in the next. I see who I am now, and I see who I want to be."
There was no one epiphany that led him to that realization, the Regina man said. But there was something else: Regina Anti-Gang Services, one of the country's most comprehensive gang-exit programs. The man wasn't ordered to the service by a judge or a social worker. RAGS, which is currently working with 80 clients, is a self-referral agency only. Its acronym itself is a reference to the gang colours which clients drop, along with their old life.
"We're churning out stats on gangs that no one has ever seen before," said Mike Gerrand, 32, an outreach worker with RAGS who was among over two dozen speakers invited to the Communities Responding to Gangs conference, which brought more than 200 Manitobans together to brainstorm new gang-prevention strategies.
As Manitoba struggles to respond to worsening gang violence, could we take a lesson from our neighbours to the west? Now in the final year of its four-year, federally-funded pilot, a final review of RAGS' efforts is pending, but anecdotal reports are encouraging. In only three years, the severity of clients' offenses has dropped considerably, Gerrand said; now, if clients end up back in a court, it's usually for minor probation breaches, rather than violent or weapons offenses.
Saskatchewan youth from 16 to 30 looking to get out of a gang can call RAGS 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year; gang violence doesn't observe stat holidays, and neither does RAGS. That's what has made the eight-staffer program successful, Gerrand said. "A lot of programs are 9 to 5. Social services, and that sort of thing," Gerrand said. "But people don't need help from 9 to 5. A crisis might happen at 4 a.m. A lot of guys have been let down, because nobody provides that intensive level of support we have. When the phone rings, we're there."
At the Delta on Tuesday afternoon, conference attendees gave an emotional standing ovation to the two ex-gang members who spoke on RAGS' behalf. As the conference broke into brainstorm groups, Gerrand and the RAGS team headed to the Broadway Neighbourhood Centre to tour the Just TV program, which recruits 16 youth each year to create music and video projects rejecting gang life.
"This really reaffirms what we're doing," said Just TV co-ordinator Laura Johnson said of the chance to network with RAGS and other anti-gang workers from Manitoba and across Canada.