Twelve storeys above Mayor John Tory’s city hall office, a group of more than a dozen young people meet without him.

It’s not by choice — the Toronto Youth Cabinet, an advisory body to council had hoped this frank-talking roundtable would be a conversation with the two-term mayor. Instead, a reporter sits at the conference table with high school students, youth workers and young entrepreneurs who care deeply about their communities. Their work has left them jaded by a lack of sustainable funding and frustrated about a failure to recognize the critical nature of their work amid ongoing gun violence so much so many of these workers are writing off governments altogether.

“When it comes to gun violence, especially the government, all they talk about is, ‘Oh, they’re just picking up a gun,’” said Aretha McCarthy, a certified child mental health specialist who founded the non-profit DevelopME Youth.

“No, kids are not just automatically picking up a gun. Stop saying this. It’s wrong.”

She added: “Nobody wants to do the work and that is the problem.”

Community organizer Abdifatah Hussein chimes in: “Except for us, right?”

The remarkable commonality among the youth workers in the room is they’ve seen it all firsthand growing up in neighbourhoods often labelled “priority” or low-income — places where the lack of services, chances for work and ongoing poverty have led, in part, to violence that feels, at this point, normal. These can be places where claims Toronto is a “safe city” ring false. But instead of seeking opportunities elsewhere, they chose to stay.

“I want the people who have their genuine hearts in (the) community to be able to be looked at as the experts in their own lives,” said Hussein, who co-founded a youth organization called Hidaayah House.

“I just want the money to go simply to them because we cannot keep funnelling it (away) from people that are in this building right here and are making decisions.”

But as another generation grows up with unresolved trauma, they worry no one else will do the work — and they fear they can’t do it alone.

Toronto has repeatedly failed to curb shootings and deaths — more than 300 young people under the age of 29 have been killed over the last decade. That works out to about one youth murdered every 12 days for the last 10 years, five months and counting. That’s at least two young people killed on average between every monthly meeting of city council. These numbers do not include those wounded by shootings nor the broader impact on the people left behind; parents, siblings, friends and teachers.

Those around the table are already tired of having this conversation.

“When you look at all of the different corners of our city, (you)’ll find one thing in common. And that’s that a lot of the people have had enough,” Hussein said. “And since those resources and services weren’t there, they had to create it themselves.”

He and Ibrahim Yusuf created Hidaayah House as a way to mentor youth in their Scarborough communities, catering to often overlooked mental health issues.

Midconversation, Hussein stops to address a group of high school students at the table who had just shared their experience following a shooting in the halls of their school, David and Mary Thomson C.I. in Scarborough, which killed one Grade 12 student earlier this year. Every moment is a mentoring opportunity.

“I’m really sorry that you guys had to go through something like that,” he said. “And I’m sure it’s weird hearing people tell you, ‘I’m sorry,’ for something that they didn’t do,” he added.

“That first time you see or you’re close to someone who’s passed away due to gun violence, it usually takes a lifetime to process.”

His organization works not far from their school, he said, and he promised to be in touch.

This is the work McCarthy, Hussein and the others gathered this evening — some meeting for the first time — do quietly all across the city every day, often at all hours, for little pay and almost no funding. It’s exactly the kind of programming research has continuously shown is essential to prevent violence, addressing the underlying hurt, trauma and racial injustices that create the perfect storm for conflict in the first place.

In “The Review of the Roots of Youth Violence,” a cornerstone 2008 report commissioned by the Ontario government, researchers outlined the need to build stronger communities as a key pillar, focusing on existing agencies and organizations that governments have long relied on to do the brunt of work with youth without properly funding them.

“We believe that the government should more formally recognize the contribution and value of youth workers,” the report said. “This primarily involves paying attention to the stability of their employment, in part by making sustained commitments to the organizations that employ them and in part by supporting wages that will attract and retain highly skilled staff.”

That hasn’t happened, the workers said.

It’s gotten to the point that at least three of the workers representing three different organizations talked about giving up on seeking government assistance.

“I’ve quit on applying for any type of funding from the government,” said McCarthy. “I am about doing things without the government … I am all for doing it with each other. I don’t look for them to do anything.”

For her, it’s a lack of understanding of their role.

“We’re walking with these youth, we’re investing in these youth … yet still, you know, they’re not helping us to invest in them when we’re on the front line with them.”

Deluxson (Delux) Yogarajah, a parks and recreation worker at Jane and Finch Centre and peer mentor with the Community Healing Project, agreed.

“We don’t need politicians,” he said. “I don’t need someone to tell me what to do. I have a capable mind.”

Yogarajah, who grew up in the Jane and Finch area, went to school for criminology but said the biggest thing he felt he could do for his community was return there.

“We don’t need a reminder on CP24 at 6 p.m.,” he said. “We live there.”

Hussein said different non-profits often help each other with grant writing — knowing they don’t have the resources to employ professional grant writers that many larger organizations have. If his organization isn’t successful, he hopes another group can be.

But, he said, “I’m in a competition with her now,” referring to McCarthy, “for a grant about how many people she’s seen die.

“I don’t want to have a trauma competition with people.”

When funding does come, it often isn’t continuous, leaving new organizations in the lurch after just a few years if they’re lucky to get multi-year funding in the first place. After finding a space to rent in some cases, hiring workers and investing in other permanent resources to best reach youth where they are — with tutoring, help with job applications, recreation activities and more — the loss of that funding means that stability and mentorship, along with safe spaces, suddenly disappear.

Nafisa Mohamed, co-founder of an initiative for Black Muslim youth called NOOR, said after creating a safe space for those folks, she felt dissuaded from reapplying by her organization’s funders as their grant ran out — essentially getting the message: “You had your turn”.

Because of these challenges, Lesley Oduro went in a different direction when he created the Central Etobicoke Youth Agency, a for-profit business that employs youth in the pursuit of improving access to jobs.

“I think we’re missing the opportunity of the youth capital,” said Oduro, whose best friend was shot and killed in front of him — a pivotal event that set him on a path to better the outcomes for other youth in his community.

But the stress of keeping their organizations afloat while working to keep the youth they serve safe inevitably leads to burnout, the workers said.

“We’re the support workers, we’re their education supports, we’re their financial resources and consultants, we’re housing experts,” said Hussein. “It’s a million different jobs that we do.”

That’s compounded by the fact that few youth workers are earning a living wage, working multiple jobs and continuing to struggle as they try to show a younger generation there’s a better life.

“If I’m going to be advertising and telling people and looking at the city and saying, ‘you guys need to trust us to be able to do this work,’ I also have to be able to look at the people in my community and tell them it’s a viable job to help other people,” Hussein said. “And it’s not right now. I’m not making a healthy living.”

But he’ll continue for as long as he can.

“If I don’t, I don’t know who will.”

Tory’s office said they never got an official invite to any roundtable and that an invite would have been considered.

“Our office understands the important role youth play in addressing community safety in Toronto and the Mayor is encouraged by their advocacy on this issue,” a statement said. “The Mayor looks forward to that continued partnership and the work that will be done on addressing gun violence together.”

Who these youth workers are, in their own words:

Central Etobicoke Youth Agency (CEYA)

Founded in 2019, CEYA’s core business interest is in the focus of urban youth capacity development, including career and skills training development, community social action and advocacy, creative arts and talent development and decent jobs for youth. The mission is to develop new ways of delivering access to learning and career development.

DevelopME Youth

DevelopME Youth is a non-profit organization that fights for equal rights, racial equality, and inclusiveness while helping the younger generation change the world through community involvement, leadership, and self-empowerment. The organization aims to improve and enrich the lives of Black youth by using positive reinforcement to pave the way to success. Through authenticity and transparency, they provide youth with a nurturing environment that is essential to their overall developmental needs. Creating opportunities for educational enrolment, character building, financial sufficiency, meaningful mentorship, and self-empowerment, all while increasing the cultural competence of the organizations they collaborate with to affect change.

Hidaayah House

Hidaayah House is one of the most prominent organizations in the city of Toronto that support communities through crisis support, mental health resources, educating youth through workshops, and regular communal events. With a team of trained mental health professionals, and utilizing their own personal lived experiences, many people trust and rely on them to help them gain access to resources they may have not known existed; especially when they need it most. Their long-term goal is to open a community centre for people that need it most and provide them with a sustainable safe space that helps navigate them through tough situations and engage them in positive skill-building activities, led by a diverse group of caring mentors.


NOOR is a Youth-Led initiative created to educate, empower, and unite Black Muslim youth in Toronto. NOOR provides mentorship, guidance, workshops, group talks, and recreational programs through youth-led initiatives while centring creative arts, physical activities, and other interests to promote the youth’s reliance on themselves and their community.

Deluxson (Delux) Yogarajah

Delux has worked in the GTA and in his community of Jane and Finch. Delux is very passionate about the accessibility and advocacy of mental health throughout BIPOC communities. His work with GreenChange and mental health and wellness is amplified through his work at Jane/Finch Centre and the Community Healing Project (CHP). Youth can contact Delux via email

Ayoub Farah

Ayoud is a Black Muslim Youth Worker at the Jane/Finch Centre in collaboration with Islamic Relief Canada, as well as the community safety lead at the Toronto Youth Cabinet, and director of outreach and communications at Hidaayah House. He serves Black Muslim youth predominantly in the northwest area, where he founded the Peace Be project aimed at developing new skills, encouraging youth leadership, and fostering resilience in the youth and within the community.

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based crime reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags