Group home for at-risk youth asked to do more consultation

Project operated by John Howard Society for men aged 18-21 aimed at keeping them away from gangs gets positive reviews, but must do more to educate neighbours

John Howard Society of Saskatchewan CEO Shawn Fraser responds to a question from Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowski during a council meeting on Feb. 22, 2021. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

City council wants a project aimed at keeping youth aged 18-21 away from gangs to spend more time consulting with the community before a pending development permit is approved.

Council voted to hold off on making a decision on a development permit that would have turned a four-plex located near Prince Albert Collegiate Institute into a residential care home pending the results of conversations with affected neighbours.

Three letters were sent to council opposing the development, and several councillors got phone calls.

One of the authors of the letters appeared as a delegation Monday, arguing the project would put their safety at risk, that it was poorly suited to the area and that it would result in lowered property values.

A few city councillors echoed those concerns — chief among them worry about the suitability of the home’s residents to a neighbourhood with a high school and Kinsmen Park.

Those worries were sparked by a letter that went out with the development notice. The letter said that the home would be part of a new project run by the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan to intervene and support young men at risk of contact with the justice system, with a focus on preventing gang involvement.

That was an issue for residents and councillors alike, especially with the proposed project’s proximity to a high school and Kinsmen Park.

“The neighbours are all excited about the language used in the letter,” said Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowski, who proposed that the city facilitiate conversations between the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan and concerned neighbours.

“The more information, the better,” he said.

John Howard Society of Saskatchewan CEO Shawn Fraser attempted to assuage council’s concerns. He explained that the project was not for active gang members looking to leave a life of crime behind,   but rather, a place “to engage people who might otherwise be at risk of gang involvement.”

It would be for Indigenous men aged 18-21 who want to better themselves and lead productive lives.

He said the project is unique to the John Howard Society, which already operates seven group homes for youth in Regina and Saskatoon and runs supported independent living projects for adults.

This project, he said, is somewhere in the middle. It would have a youth home-type environment for people who are a little bit older, and a little bit more independent.

The fourplex has three two-bedroom suites and a single one-bedroom suite. It would house five youth, each with his own bedroom with the single-bedroom suite reserved for staff. The facility would have one to two staff members offering services during the day and one staying at the facility through the night. While each youth would have his own bedroom, the rest of the building would be treated as a common area, like you would find in a house.

Too often, Fraser said, social supports end when people turn 18. This project would seek to fill that gap. It’s work the society is suited for.

“Sixty per cent of our (society’s provincial) budget … is preventative justice related. It’s not youth that have had contact with the justice system,” he explained.

“We find there’s this hole when people are in social services — when youth are wards of the state, often when they turn 18, that’s when trouble hits. We work with them to help keep them on the rails.”

Youth in the program won’t just have the help of social workers  to help them, they’ll also have cultural and educational supports

‘We want to make sure that if people don’t have a high school education we’ll connect them and help them finish a GED,” Fraser said. Workplace training will also be supported. A big emphasis will be on land-based education.

“When people graduate from the program, I want them to be sick with canoeing. I want them to have visited more provincial parks across the province than any of us have, and come away with a rally keen understanding and positive experience of outdoor, nature-based education.”

Referrals would come from other agencies, schools, youth homes and possibly even police and the corrections system, Fraser explained.

“It’s not a gang exit strategy, but it’s not to say that youth will have zero contact with justice already. It’s not a prerequisite, but it could happen.”

The difference between other programs and this one, he said, is that it’s voluntary.

“People aren’t ordered to be in this program. We’re not forcing them to be in this program. We’ll have rules, but people have to want to be in this program to be in this program,” he said.

“There’s always a spectrum. On one side, there’s people who are already gang entrenched. That’s not the people this program is set up for. On the other side, there is a group of people that might fit all the other criteria and have just graduated high school and are ready to hit …the U of S campus here. That’s not quite who we’re looking for either. We’re looking for people in the middle that with a bit of help and a few years of support can lead productive lives.”

City councillors who had their doubts before hearing Fraser speak seemed to be receptive to the idea, but they urged Fraser to have the conversation they had with him with the concerned community members who were asking questions.

“I will share those facts … but it’s important that it comes from you,” Zurakowski said.

“These are reasonable folks. I don’t think anybody (I talked to) was right over the edge. They need to hear the facts from you.”

Even councillors who supported the project, such as Ward 5 Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick, said the community needed time to come on board first. He compared the project to Homeward Bound, the YWCA initiative that helps hard-to-house residents find a stable place to live and gives them assistance breaking down their barriers.

“Change is a process, not an event,” he said.

“The neighbours need more time to understand. When I got elected, I got phone calls. I understand (residents’) objections to this coming right next to you. I don’t think people have to worry about buildings where we have organized programming on. The problem … is those private apartment buildings that aren’t supervised. That’s what’s causing the chaos …in my neighbourhood. (Supported projects) are very well regulated. They are very well controlled.”

Ogrodnick said that residents of his area were hesitant when a new group home applied to come into the area, too, but that once they understood the project and what it offered, most welcomed it to the area. He expects a similar result here.

“It’s a major change,” he said.

“We need to make sure that residents in this area understand the program. Once we understand, we’re more likely to accept it. Not everybody is going to, but I think you’ll have a majority who will then start accepting it.”

Zurakowski’s motion, to hold off on approving the project until the John Howard Society meets with residents in a COVID-safe manner, passed.

The city will help to facilitate a virtual meeting between the project and concerned residents.

Once that’s is done, the project will come back to council for approval.

Neighbourhood ‘the right place’ Fraser says

Program concerns aside, councillors also pressed Fraser on why that particular spot had been chosen. Fraser explained, in answers to questions posed by Zurakowski and by Ward 6 Coun. Blake Edwards, that it met a lot of criteria the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan was looking for.

“This hits the mark of having the neighbourhood we could fit into and we could blend into and not really stick out,” Fraser said. In a newer neighbourhood, he explained, the facility would be obvious. In other areas of town, there would be “distractions” the project is trying to avoid.

 He also trumpeted his organization’s reputation, earned in other cities, for being good neighbours.

“I can speak to all our other examples of group homes across the province,” he said. “We shovel our sidewalks, we bring cookies at Christmas, we settle in … we do it right, and we do it well.”

City planning director Craig Guidinger said he reached out to other communities that have John Howard Society operated facilities, and none had any complaints. He also said that existed supported living facilities in the city, by and large, have few complaints from neighbours.

“In some cases, it’s quite the opposite,” Guidinger said. “(We hear) that we’re making big impacts.”

Fraser welcomes feedback

Despite coming under fire, Fraser was unphased.

“I don’t think today is the end of our engagement in P.A,” he said, noting the organization returned to the city in 2017 after a 30-year absence.

” I’m excited for our organization to be back here. We want to make sure we’re getting off on the right foot.”

Fraser, who served as a member of Regina’s city council from 2012-2016, said he appreciates the public hearing process and understands concerns residents might have.

“Neighbours are right to have questions,” he said.

“Our goal is to have zero police interactions. We want to, once it’s set up, be invisible and provide good service and good outcomes for youth.”

While the care home will house up to five youth, the project will involve   10-15 across the city as a whole, some of whom will be staying in their own residences.

While the communication process was criticized by councillors, the need for a program aimed at helping 18-21-year-old men stay away from trouble was acknowledged by everyone sitting in council chambers.

“It’s not about a bunch of gangsters moving into a home,” said Ward 3 Coun. Tony Head.

“It’s about those who want help, those who want to make a life change. We have to support this.”

Ward 7 Coun. Dawn Kilmer said during her teaching career, she would encounter students in the care of social services who would turn 18, still be in high school and have nowhere to go.

That, Fraser said, is unfortunately common.

“That’s not the exception. That’s the rule or the norm,” he said. “When people fall of supports, that’s where trouble starts. We want to offer them a solid home life for a few years and stay on the right track.”

Mayor Greg Dionne, who was quiet during the debate, agreed. He wants the project to succeed so more like it can open up in the city.

“I want you to expand because we’re a city of needs,” he said.

“This is a program that I like, more of a preventative program.  (Once they turn 18) they get thrown out there and get back into the rut we worked so hard to get them out of. I want this to be established. I’m very pleased we’re moving forward in trying to find answers for our youth to point them in the right direction.”