CANADA

Hell on the streets

Winnipeg tries to cope with runaways

BRIAN BERGMAN November 19 1990
CANADA

Hell on the streets

Winnipeg tries to cope with runaways

BRIAN BERGMAN November 19 1990

Hell on the streets

Winnipeg tries to cope with runaways

On the street, he is known simply as the Provider because of his ability to come up with money for food and other basic needs. “There’s always somebody in the group that can provide, whether by dealing drugs, turning tricks or doing B-and-E’s [breaking and entering],” the lanky 19-year-old told Maclean’s as he shot pool at an inner-city drop-in centre in Winnipeg. “I was good at the B-andE’s.” Since first leaving home at age 10 after a fight with his father, he has spent most of his time on the streets, often finding shelter for the night in bus-station washrooms, abandoned

buildings and old sheds. Like other street kids, he sometimes finds solace in drugs or sniffing mind-numbing solvents. Street life, he said, is another kind of addiction: “It becomes a habit that you want to break, but you can’t quit. It keeps calling you back.”

There are street-hardened young people like the Provider in every major city in Canada. But Manitoba has the uncertain distinction of playing host to the highest per capita number of teenage runaways and missing children in the country, most of them in Winnipeg. Several recent studies by police and social agencies have suggested that the situation has reached a crisis point. Underscoring those concerns are several highly publicized court cases involving the sexual abuse of homeless teens. And last week, several Winnipeg social workers stepped up their attack on a recent round of provincial funding cuts that they say will ultimately force even more troubled children out

of foster care and onto the streets.

In fact, there is growing evidence that Winnipeg has already become the runaway capital of Canada, drawing youths from all over Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario. According to a report released in May by the city’s Social Planning Council, there were 7,052 children under 18 reported missing and believed to be living on Winnipeg streets in 1988—a 53-per-cent increase from 1984. The majority of them were between 11 and 16, and slightly more than half were Indians or Métis. Most of the youths surveyed

admitted to some criminal activity, including prostitution and robbery.

Many teenage runaways end up as tragic figures. An internal Winnipeg police report made public in September said that one female recruiter for a local satanic cult took in runaways and put them to work as prostitutes. Then, in late October, the Youth Victims Projject, a joint investigation by Winnipeg social agencies and the police into allegations of abuse of street kids by Asian men, issued another damning report. Project members identified 183 girls, some as young as 10, who had been sexually assaulted or abused by up to 100 men—most of them of Southeast Asian origin. Usually, the men picked up the girls at downtown haunts and took them home, where they gave them drugs and alcohol and, in many cases, raped them after the girls were too impaired to resist. Still, many girls clearly went willingly with the men—and declined to report

the attacks. “The men provided for the girls at the basic levels: shelter, food, clothing and companionship,” said the report. “The victims regarded the sexual exploitation as a small price to pay for the attention they received.” Winnipeg has also been rocked by recent court cases involving the sexual abuse of street kids. In one of the most sensational, Carl Edward Krantz, 52, was sentenced on Oct. 15 to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to 16 counts of sexual assault. Police arrested Krantz in mid-June after raiding his apartment and seizing 120 videotapes that depicted more than 700 hours of sexual acts between Krantz and dozens of girls, some as young as 11. According to Sgt. Robin Parker, co-ordinator of the police child abuse unit, Krantz lured the girls, almost all of them Indian or Métis, to his apartment with promises of food, shelter, alcohol and drugs. When they became unconscious, he raped and sodomized them while a video camera recorded the activity.

That case has hardened the resolve of some social workers to fight recent spending cuts by Premier Gary Filmon’s Conservative government. The battle began in June, when the department of family services set quotas on children’s eligibility for more expensive levels of foster care to treat special needs, including medical and emotional problems and handicaps. Under the new quotas, only 45 per cent of foster-care children are eligible for higher rates—even though some inner-city agencies say that more than half of the children in their care have special needs. The result, say some social workers, is that more children with special needs will be forced into institutions or homes that cannot cope I with them—and they will run away 9 again. “We are closing the door in

1 terms of service to some of these 2 teens,” Tim Maloney, executive dis rector of Northwest Child and Family ° Services, said last week. Agreed Liberal family services critic Reginald Alcock: “It really is disgraceful.”

Manitoba Family Services Minister Harold Gilleshammer told Maclean ’s that his department is seeking to improve co-ordination among the agencies that deal with street kids. But Gilleshammer added that the government will not increase funding to social workers. Declared Gilleshammer: “Agencies have been asked to balance their budgets and to use their resources wisely.” Even some social workers concede that public opinion supports the minister’s frugality. Said Bruce Hardy, executive director of Northeast Winnipeg Family and Children’s Extended Social Services: “People are worried about their taxes. They are concerned about a hundred things other than this.” If that is the case, many more runaways may soon be seeking the illicit services of streetsmart survivors like the Provider.

BRIAN BERGMAN with

MAUREEN BROSNAHAN