Most SkyTrain commuters give a wide berth to gaggles of loud-talking, gum-smacking, cigarette-sharing young people. Chris Preston and Despina Stratidakis make a bee-line right for them.
They’re one of two teams of youth outreach workers (three in the summer) with the Inter-Regional At-Risk Youth Link (I-RAYL) that ride the elevated rail lines from Surrey to Vancouver to Richmond five days a week, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., talking to kids under 19 years old, directing them to community resources, handing out meal coupons, transit tickets and snacks.
The snacks are the key, says Preston, opening a dark blue/grey backpack filled with candy bars, juice boxes and bags of bright orange cheese puffs.
“They’re a huge icebreaker,” says Preston, who’s been with I-RAYL for two years. “When we first approach kids, they have no idea who we are.”
But the universal language of free snacks creates a connection that can lead a troubled youth to the help they need to steer clear of a life of crime or other high-risk behaviour, give them the support and stability they might need.
“You always try an approach to make conversation, build a relationship,” says Preston. The teams meet 700-800 youth each month.
The four-year old program, which is unique in Canada, is funded by $360,000 from the Ministry of Children and Family Development, and administered by Pacific Community Resources. The outreach workers tap into resources available to youth in the various communities along the SkyTrain lines, from shelters to social services to food banks to counseling to recreation and youth centers, as well as local and transit police.
“Youth are so transient,” says Preston. “They’re traveling between communities and SkyTrain offers them a conduit. We’re meeting them where they’re at.”
Most of their work is proactive, trying to reach kids before they get into trouble with the law, but through constant alerts on their Blackberry’s, they’re also an extra set of eyes that can keep a look out for missing kids or youth gone AWOL from group homes.
On a recent pitstop at Metrotown Station, one of three transit hubs along the SkyTrain system that attract lots of young people (Surrey Central and Broadway-Commercial are the others), Preston and Stratidakis walk up to a small group of clean-cut kids in shorts and crisp T-shirts hanging out on the concrete concourse outside the doors to Metropolis at Metrotown. After a brief introduction and explanation of who they are and what they’re doing, their offer of free snacks is greeted with smiles and polite thanks. One kid accepts a business card.
“The worst that can happen is they’re just not interested,” says Stratidakis.
But they might have a friend who is in trouble and that initial contact can pay off down the road, explains Preston. Sometimes that process can take months.
“You find out what you can do and you have the resources available to create a recipe for success,” says Preston. The team also maintains a Facebook page to stay in touch even when they’re not on the trains. “It’s all about building relationships.”
The program has also reaped benefits for the transit system by helping reduce property and violent crime; in 2011 property crime dropped 15 per cent and violent crime dropped 14 per cent per 100,000 transit passenger boardings.
The next stop for Preston and Stratidakas is the sprawling Broadway-Commercial station in Vancouver, where the Expo and Millennium lines intersect. An elderly panhandler hunches forward from his wheelchair at the station’s Broadway entrance.
“He’s not really our demographic,” says Preston.
A tour around the station and a block up and down Commercial, and a peek through the windows of a coffee shop turns up no groups of loitering kids, no familiar faces.
“A lot of it is reading body language,” says Preston. “We’re able to read situations.”
Not that coming up empty is a bad thing, says Stratidakis.
“Sometimes when there’s no youth around it’s a good thing. They might be in school, or more settled and stabilized in their life.”