Early-morning gunfire that killed a Hells Angel member in a drive-thru of a popular South Surrey strip mall last week is the precise type of violence a new anti-gang centre in Surrey hopes to curb.
And the lives it aims to save.
The Surrey Anti-Gang Family Empowerment Centre has been quietly operating inside KPU’s City Centre campus for several months now.
It’s one of nearly a dozen programs that have launched through a new “SAFE” initiative, which was made possible through $7.5 million over five years from the federal government’s Youth Gang Prevention Fund.
From clinical counselling to family intervention initiatives, the programs all have a common goal: To “deliver new services to support children, youth and families” to help “divert them away from gang involvement.” The programs target children as young as six years old.
Councillor Linda Annis said she sees the centre as a “one stop shop” for children who are sliding down the slippery slope into gang life – but also their families.
“I think for a lot of parents, if you think your child is entering into a risky lifestyle, you don’t know where to call,” said Annis, who is the council liaison on the project, and also the executive director of Metro Vancouver Crime Stoppers.
“You’re just in absolute panic because you don’t want your child to go down that path. By having it really simple, we’ve got one number you can call if you don’t know where to go, one email address, and you can get the help you need. That makes it so simple to get into the system.”
Annis noted when a child is at risk, they may need several supports, and that a “whole umbrella approach is needed to get him or her back on the right track.”
This is what the new centre will offer, she said.
“We’ve been able to bring everybody together, and get
collaboratively. It will ultimately help us, I think, reduce kids getting into the gang lifestyle.”
Annis noted previous gang-fighting efforts have been more about “apprehension and dealing with kids once they’re in gang activity, as opposed to actually catching them before they enter.”
“That’s a huge piece,” she said.
“I think it’s absolutely fabulous that we were given this funding and that Surrey has taken this very leadership role in terms of developing it. The piece that we’re missing in the city was the piece around early intervention. This will help us so much in resolving a lot of our kids getting involved in gang activity.”
Annis commended Surrey’s Community Safety Manager Brian Aasebo, and his team, who have made this centre a reality.
Standing in the bright, modern space inside KPU’s City Centre campus at Civic Hotel this week, Aasebo highlighted the many programs that are now fully “up and running” under the SAFE umbrella.
“It’s really a triage point, essentially. If you call in with some concerns we can then say, OK, let’s formulate a plan. It’s basically a starting point. Almost like a 211,” he noted.
As far as Aasebo knows, there’s nothing like this taking place across Canada. “It is very innovative. It’s very cutting-edge, and we’re very excited. Collaboration is the key theme. It’s not all these independent agencies working alongside one another – it’s with one another.”
One of the key programs of SAFE is CHART – the Children and Youth At-Risk Table – described as a “proactive initiative that supports children and youth before they show negative behaviours or get involved in criminal activity.”
At each weekly CHART meeting, a team of roughly 15 service providers receive referrals and consider the risk factors that may be impacting a given child. As of Aug. 6, 45 unique cases had come through the program.
“CHART focuses on the six- to 19-year-old age group,” said Aasebo. “Some of the elements that could come up for youth that are requiring this sort of support could be a connection to negative peers, a lack of supervision or connection with caregivers, substance abuse, perhaps there’s not a lot of recreational outlets, maybe not a connection to school.
“When you take a big view of the different domains including family, peer, school, community and individual risk factors, all these different areas, you get a clear picture of what services need to be in place. It’s not one singular service – it’s a collection of different services. And that’s really what the centre is about – about bringing a co-ordinated approach with agencies that were already in existence in Surrey but bringing them closer together, providing them with more funding so they can do more internally as individual agencies, and together as a collective, to really wrap around and support these youth and families.”
Another SAFE program involves clinical counselling.
“There’s a few opportunities for clinical counselling via SAFE. For example, the SAFE Community Clinical Counselling program is a partnership between SFU and DIVERSEcity,” said Aasebo. “This program receives referrals from CHART as well as self-referrals. DIVERSEcity meets with youth and families at its space while SFU offers masters level students to support late-afternoon sessions to clients of all ages during the school year. The Surrey School District offers education and clinical counselling specifically for caregivers to aid skill development needed in raising children and addressing high-risk behaviours. Together, these programs are able to tackle a lot of difficult clinical-counselling-required cases.”
Aasebo said another “really interesting” SAFE initiative is the Female Youth Gang Intervention program.
“We’ve learned we can have a lot of young girls that can be exploited,” he noted. “They can be as young as 12, they could be much older, so this program, what it does is reaches out to those young ladies in particular, because we know that females have a role in gangs, but it’s very different. Oftentimes they’re holding weapons, carrying drugs or being sexually exploited. A lot of females attached to the gang lifestyle have been violently killed or hurt. The goal of this program is to intervene and prevent these young people from entering such high-risk lifestyles.”
A variety of other initiatives have been launched, including programming specifically targeting the South Asian community, a High Risk Youth Justice program, and a Family and Youth Resource Support Team.
“It’s not just the youth – we’re focusing on the families as well,” said Aasebo.
“Those caregivers aren’t always parents. They could be grandparents, aunts, uncles, there’s also siblings attached to some of the cases. Maybe the younger siblings aren’t having a negative experience yet but they have an older sibling that’s getting into trouble so we also want to start to focus on that younger sibling too.”
One program that’s rather different than the others is the Youth Hub for Co-operative Enterprise.
It involves “teaching young people to be entrepreneurs,” Aasebo explained.
“It fills their time with learning skills on how to run their own business. It involves empowerment and self-esteem building but also learning on-the-job skills. So instead of going out and getting involved in those idle times, negative activities, they’re learning skills, making friendships and hopefully contributing economically down the road. SAFE provides quite an array of intervention programs.”
In all, 10 agencies are official SAFE partners, and several more participate in various programs including B.C.’s gang-fighting Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre Association, the Ministry of Child and Family Development, as well as Fraser Health’s concurrent disorders program.
From January to March, 152 unique clients had gone through SAFE programs, with many more since, said Aasebo.
The physical SAFE centre, meantime, also serves as a “collaboration hub for professionals,” Aasebo explained, noting it boasts a boardroom, and a collaboration space.
“We’ve already hosted some focus groups and full-day workshops there. Essentially what we’re trying to do is to continue to activate the space,” he said. “So just by existing here, there can be a lot of things that weren’t initially thought of that all of the sudden are organically taking place. So we’re constantly out there connecting with agencies, saying bring whatever you’ve got going on here. Things stem off of that,” he said. “What we’ve seen already is a focus group about child exploitation. That wasn’t necessarily on the docket, but they’ve come twice now, and I think they’re coming back a third time. We’ve had different groups in here, both city and external groups.”
Now that the centre is officially open and the programs are up and running, Aasebo said “it’s only going to snowball.”
“I think we’re going to see a real trajectory in terms of increase of usage once we can get the word out there,” she said. “We need to make sure that people use it, and that’s it’s widely known.”