The UVic Torch · University of Victoria Alumni Magazine · Spring 1998

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by Myriam Gibb

Downtown Victoria is not the same youth-friendlyplace it was 20 years ago. When Pat Griffin started working with at-risk youth, fists settled most street fights. Now he sees more kids wielding knives, clubs, even guns. Five years ago, the unwritten code among older street people encouraged them to protect younger ones from intravenous drugs. Now, drug pushers use kids to carry them. Griffin and his staff at the Youth Empowerment Society (YES) see kids­13 or 14 years old­with heroin and cocaine habits.

Sometimes helping these kids get on the right track is a daunting task. But Griffin has been doing it since he graduated from the University of Victoria in 1972 with a degree in political science. After graduation, plans to attend law school were quickly pushed aside by an interest in working with kids that has become a life-long passion. "I'm a jock not an idealist," he says.

In 1992, Griffin stepped in as executive director of YES. His first task was to amalgamate two fragmented agencies, ASK (Association for Street Kids) and the Alliance Club, into a society that would better serve his clients. His next step was to make YES the primary contact point and referral agency for street-involved youth in Greater Victoria. This year, his staff expects to have over 30,000 contacts with 2,700 individual youths­roughly double the case load in the past six years.

Griffin has also helped spearhead a housing registry, support program and youth outreach teams which paired police officers with youth counsellors. He strengthened and broadened GOALS (alcohol and drug services), the Alliance Club (evening drop-in centre), and a volunteer program, staffed mainly by UVic Child and Youth Care and Social Work students. The volunteers, after an extensive interview and training process, are at the front-end of the referral process and serve as positive role models.

In Griffin's new window-lined office on lower Yates Street, he sits behind a nondescript desk strewn with annual reports, projections and action plans. Extensive paper work, Griffin's least favorite aspect of his job, is a requirement of the B.C. Ministry for Children and Families, YES' main funding source.

Across the room is a comfy chair. The chair, as everyone associated with the society knows, belongs to nine employees and any of the youth who saunter into his office. The well-worn fabric testifies to the success of his open-door policy. Most of the YES staff have been there at least as long as their boss, surprising in a field that normally has a high burnout rate. The counsellors and youth workers attribute their staying power to Griffin's humor and support.

"Pat came in and immediately built a supportive and caring relationship with his staff," says Elaine Holmes, an outreach worker of 13 years. "He is supportive of us, professionally and personally. You don't normally get a work environment like that." You can't spend more than a few minutes in the YES common room without hearing laughter through the open doors of staff offices. The relaxed atmosphere is one of the things that attracts kids to YES and the Alliance Club.

"I'm an administrator now," says Griffin. "So, I don't have as much contact with the kids directly."

But his staff say most kids know Griffin is always willing to see them. Dustin, 17, has been a regular at the society for about four months. He says if he really wants to get something off his chest, Griffin is the one he sees. "Pat's easy to talk to and fun to bug. If I have a problem, I go to Pat. He'll do something about it."

After graduating from UVic, Griffin had every intention of going to law school. That was before he spotted an ad requesting a super jock to work for a youth outreach program in Bamberton Park in Vic West. Griffin was heavily involved in football, rugby and basketball so he applied for the summer position.

Griffin ran a drop-in program and eventually an alternative school program. Working closely with Social Services, Griffin modified the curriculum to help kids who had fallen through the cracks.

"We had three aboriginal kids who were in the top five for truancy in the city. When we visited their home, we found about 15 people living in two rooms, sleeping in shifts. These kids never got to bed before three or four in the morning, so to get them to school by nine was impossible. We just changed their school day to start at 2 p.m. Those guys hardly ever missed a day."

Griffin also taught a boy physics and geometry by taking him to the pool hall. He learned about angles and principles of physics by setting up his shots. "That was what he was interested in, so that's how we taught him."

But learning to relate to at-risk youth wasn't easy.

"The first week working with these youth, I confronted a guy in a washroom who ended up being on glue. I got stabbed. It was really my inexperience. It was my fault to corner someone high on drugs in a confined space. After three weeks on the job, I went to a house where a female social worker didn't want to go alone. One room was used for garbage. There was a rat in the corner of the kitchen that had been dead for I don't know how long. Basically, I just realized that I didn't know Victoria. I didn't know there was a whole section of the city that was really poor. It shocked me to say the least. I became fascinated with my work."

During the past 20 years Griffin has also worked as a vocational rehabilitation counsellor, family program coordinator, and a consultant in Tumbler Ridge when the town was first created in the mid-80s. He continues to coach in his spare time. He enjoys coaching girls basketball best because "the girls are really interested in learning, not just showing off with NBA moves."

His experience has taught him to recognize the gaps between existing services and the reality for today's kids. He thinks the growing frustration of Victoria youth is caused in part by the 23 per cent poverty rate among Victoria families and B.C.'s 20 per cent youth unemployment rate, which is well above Canada's general rate of eight per cent. He says kids often show their disillusionment by dropping out of school and turning to drugs or alcohol.

Vancouver Island has only one detox centre and one needle exchange program to serve the growing number of youth drug users. And naive kids, new to the street, often get caught up in Victoria's growing prostitution trade.

"We've got the first problems kids face­drugs and lack of housing­covered with our programs," says Griffin. "The next thing to deal with is school and employment, and this is where the major gaps in Victoria are. The biggest holes are in the life skills area and this is what I'm aiming to fill in."

For some, the force with which YES staff intervenes with at-risk youth is hard to swallow.

Teresa, 17, came to Victoria from Montreal because she heard the weather is nicer, the streets safer and the jobs more plentiful. However, she quickly discovered how hard Victoria street life is. "It's hard to get work with these," pointing to the matted yellow dreadlocks that spring from her head. "I'm only passing through, right? But these guys started drilling me about where I was staying and who I was hanging with and what my plans are. Like, how should I know?"

But others seem to appreciate the push. Chrissy, 19, likes hanging out with Alliance and YES staff. For nearly six years, she's been a regular user of Alliance's laundry services, showers, hygiene products and evening meal services. Recently, she found an apartment, which she shares with roommates. She uses the YES phone to call about possible job opportunities.

Griffin worries negative stereotypes about street kids make it more difficult for people like Chrissy to make positive changes. Building trust is the first step and Griffin says relationship building is what makes drop-in centres useful. "First, we just start by saying, 'Hi.' It might take months, but eventually the kid will start to open up. If we see a kid who's got an alcohol and drug issue and we get him to a treatment program so he can get back to school or into an employment program, we consider that a success.

"Sometimes the kids don't like how hard we push. But our philosophy is: Downtown is dangerous and we're going to intervene as quickly as possible and in some cases we're going to make you move. You're already not making very good choices, and we're not going to support unhealthy choices." *

Myriam Gibb is enrolled in Asia-Pacific studies and the Professional Writing program at UVic. She hopes to live and work in China after graduation.

Street Studies

UVic sociologist Dr. Bill McCarthy took to the streets, literally, to research his latest book Mean Streets: Youth, Crime and Homelessness, co-written with his University of Toronto counterpart Dr. John Hagan. They collected survey and interview data from over 800 homeless adolescents in Toronto and Vancouver and gathered data from 400 high school youth and compared the backgrounds of those who live at home with those whose home is the street.

Their study revealed that street kids in Vancouver went hungry more often, slept in the street more often, and were generally worse off than those in Toronto and had higher levels of involvement in crime. The sociologists argue that the lack of shelters in Vancouver at the time of the 1992 study was a major cause of Vancouver youths' more disadvantaged lives. Toronto still has more shelters for street youth, but has been experiencing cuts to its social programs.

McCarthy and Hagan conclude that, compared to school youth, the majority of homeless youth come from dysfunctional families and a disproportionate number of street kids come from homes where there is family violence and sexual abuse. Once on the street, youths' lives are characterized by a daily search for food, shelter, income and companionship. Employment was seen as a turning point in the lives of street youth. "Youth who find and keep jobs are less likely to be involved in offending and not just because of the income," says McCarthy. "In the same way that the street network encourages certain behaviours, working starts to change your network and employment issues gain greater importance." *


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