This is not Aretha McCarthy’s first roundtable.

The constant stream of government meetings to discuss gun violence, but, in her view, not act has left the Toronto youth worker and her colleagues fed up.

“Why are they not hearing us?” she said. “You’re saying that we’re the voices, but yet still you’re not listening to us.”

When the Star was approached by the Toronto Youth Cabinet, council’s official youth advisory body, to talk about gun violence, it was decided that high school students, youth workers and young entrepreneurs would meet with a reporter instead, to discuss the most pressing issues affecting their lives amid ongoing gun violence.

Away from politicians who have neglected to provide sustainable funding for their organizations’ front-line work with the city’s most vulnerable youth, they detailed the challenges of mental health, violence in schools and issues with policing and housing. These are often not the top priorities for government, where debate and funding have focused on gun control and increasing police resources.

Here is what the experts in their own experiences and communities had to say:

Mental health

While a lot of focus in combating gun violence has centred on access to guns, border laws and other regulations, those the Star spoke with said more emphasis is needed on child and youth mental health.

“We cater to mental health because we know how serious that is when it comes to our youth,” said McCarthy, who founded DevelopME Youth, a non-profit to empower Black youth. Visits from politicians to community, without follow-through on funding for counselling and programming, often feel hollow.

“You coming in for the photo opp is not going to help me with seeing one of my friends pass.”

Gloria “Glowz” O’koye, a youth and crisis support worker, said the pandemic has also complicated the ability for youth who have lost someone to violence to get proper closure, often attending memorial services virtually.

It’s people like O’koye who youth reach out to in the middle of the night.

Though there is a push to make crisis teams more readily available in the city, those resources aren’t available at all hours, she noted.

“Around that 3 or 4 (a.m.), we call it demon time,” she said of youth who struggle with their mental health in the middle of the night and need someone to talk to. “We’re seeing the aftermath of it.”

The ongoing effect of a shooting on a community without proper intervention can create a cycle of negative outcomes, the workers said.

“A lot of youth are hopeless,” said Ibrahim Yusuf, co-founder of Hidaayah House, an organization that offers crisis support, mental health resources, events and more. “They feel like they’re not going to make it anywhere, which is one of the main leading reasons as to the violence that you see.”

The Review of the Roots of Youth Violence report commissioned by the Ontario government in 2008 noted mental health as one of the direct roots to immediate risk factors for violence, “particularly alienation and no sense of belonging.”

School violence

Nasra Falahy remembers after a shooting in her high school earlier this year, there were outside agencies offering only notebooks and pens to students in the cafeteria as part of the immediate response. After a couple days, it seemed like there wasn’t much else by way of support at David and Mary Thomson C.I..

“They’ve never really talked to it on the announcements,” said friend and classmate Kristian Tofilovski.

“I think they just think that if we kind of forget about it, focus on our assignments and move on from that, then that’ll be it,” he said. “We do have a memorial, but . . . I think by the start of next year, they might remove it . . . they kind of crowded all the flowers and the posters into one corner.”

The students talked about wanting to make a more permanent memorial, maybe producing a documentary with their school’s film class that would feature stories about the life of 18-year-old Jahiem Robinson.

Though the school is running a unique summer program aimed at bringing the broader community together, it is geared at incoming students.

And while in-school shootings are incredibly rare, they affect the larger school community.

Logging on to virtual class after the shooting, Falahy said a teacher who had been close with Robinson was sobbing on screen.

Another teacher was a hall monitor during the incident and had given first aid to Robinson, Falahy said. Afterwards, the two students noticed he didn’t return to the school. They don’t know what happened to him.

“I feel that specifically teenagers we’ve become very desensitized to violence in our community because we’ve seen it on the news for so long,” said Tofilovski.

He and Falahy discussed gun violence on an episode of his podcast, Z-Key, where they talk about American politics, gun control and the shooting at their own school.

Tofilovski was in the front foyer of the school when he heard a gunshot. He saw people running towards him and said he continues to have dreams about gun violence. Loud noises at school make him panic.

Still, they know others have suffered more — people injured or having witnessed a friend killed in front of them. And they’re wise to the fact not enough is being done about it.

“Our generation in general either we’re not being heard or we’re not presenting ourselves enough because clearly the government, they don’t really care as much about it,” said Falahy on the podcast. “I’ve seen more people our age, like Gen Z people, coming out and speaking out on gun violence like on social media, protesting about it . . . than I’ve seen people from the government actually step up and do something.”


Abdifatah Hussein, co-founder of Hidaayah House, compared the relationship with police to a relative who only shows up for weddings and funerals.

“Like, you’ve shown face. ‘Hey, I’m going to make sure I’m there so I can say I’m part of the family.’ But, like, how come you’re not checking in with me regularly?”

He said there’s a “lack of trust” when the community doesn’t know anything about the officers who work in their neighbourhoods.

“I know they’re not going to be there before the crime happens,” he said of the role of police compared to the preventative work he and others do.

“This proactive method that we’re all talking about has never been a larger part of the puzzle.”

He said even when police and other government groups ask for their input on tackling gun violence, it feels like their experience and opinions go ignored.

“I almost feel like it’s like our voice mails are being deleted.”


Lesley Oduro, founder of the Central Etobicoke Youth Agency, said often living in social housing or lower-income neighbourhoods comes with a stigma — especially when youth apply for jobs.

Several workers spoke about young people changing or omitting their address on resumes in hopes of not being passed over.

A finite amount of assistance like TCHC’s YouthWorx program offers labour jobs but only during the summer.

Yusuf said neighbourhoods with lower income housing also appear to be treated unfairly when it comes to other resources.

“Public schools in our area seem to have lower funding,” and less engaging teachers and curriculum, he said, noting his family sent him to an academy for a special program that was two buses away.

Those issues only compound when the member of a household paying rent-geared-to-income is no longer a student, said Nafisa Mohamed, co-founder of NOOR.

“It becomes harder for parents being able to pay rent because now they have to put in the income of the 18 year old in the household.”

And without access to higher-paying jobs and career mentorship, young people are hard-pressed to contribute meaningfully to their household or better their own futures.

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