Recent shootings in Toronto have raised public debate about community safety and security. Once the shooting starts, it is clear that a strong police response is required, along with effective criminal sanctions. The City of Toronto spends more than a billion dollars annually to fund its police services, and they uphold a wide variety of laws, including the Criminal Code. While there have been some calls for additional police funding, many Torontonians are asking what can be done to prevent the gun violence from breaking out in the first place.
Community safety and security are complex issues, which means that simplistic slogans cannot, on their own, make an impact. Good jobs, good housing, social inclusion, an adequate income, a strong and vibrant community sector, collective efficacy (the ability of neighbourhoods to work together to achieve better outcomes) are all part of an effective strategy to strengthen communities and enhance population health.
Research and policy work by the Wellesley Institute and others demonstrates that a strong and vibrant community sector plays a key role in supporting community safety and security, and achieving other positive impacts. A year ago, we published Reducing Disparities and Improving Population Health: The Role of a Vibrant Community Sector. In this paper, the researcher Audrey Danaher noted:
“The key starting point is understanding community needs and perspectives. Ideally, an equity lens that takes into account ‘inequality of access; inequality of opportunity; and inequality of impacts and outcomes’ should guide the work of the community sector. Programs are then tailored to the particular needs of the community. In so doing, community organizations create a safety net for the most vulnerable that go beyond the more general and sometimes complicated labyrinth of government programs. Residents within a community have a hierarchy of needs that determines priorities for the work of the community sector. When social capital is low and health disparities are great, the community sector will need to address basic needs (e.g. food security; safety) and build a sense of trust within the community.”
“In parallel with program delivery is community engagement to build local capacity. Once community members are able to meet their more immediate needs, they are better positioned to mobilize and work with the community sector in identifying issues of concern and possible solutions. This work gives direction to the policy advocacy that needs to occur to create fundamental change. Community sector work then, builds resilience and creates an enabling environment for individuals and sectors to solve the extraordinary challenges that disadvantaged communities face.”
A major finding:
“Certain conditions need to be in place for the community sector to have a positive health impact. The sector must have adequate resources (material, fiscal, and human) and favourable policy and regulatory environments. A dynamic and responsive sector also needs to establish strong working relationships based on trust, both with residents and members of the community and other organizations and partners. These relationships are strengthened by a shared vision or sense of purpose and by cross-sectoral collaborations.”
A July 15 article in the Toronto Star under the headline Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods: Money to stem poverty, violent crime about to dry up includes information about cuts to community grants that support a range of initiatives in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods – 13 of the city’s neediest communities. Ontario’s children and youth minister Eric Hoskins has publicly warned in an opinion piece that sharp federal cuts to community grants for programs aimed at youth could reverse a decade of success in lowering crime rates.
The recent high-profile incidents of gun violence raise troubling questions. Toronto needs to focus on enduring solutions that build stronger, healthier and safer communities that will, in turn, prevent and reduce violent crimes.