The telephone desk at the Blake Boultbee Youth Outreach Service (BBYOS) holds an information pamphlet with the heading Normal Vaginal Fluids, a comic book entitled About Cocaine, a Sleeping Beauty video and an Etch A Sketch.
Forget about cocaine and Disney. As I wait for the service's one and only staff member, Rod Cohen, to finish with a client, my fingers are itching to try out the Etch. But someone has expertly crafted what looks like a rose, and I'm doubtful I could top that.
Besides, the phone is ringing, and Cohen has asked me, if I arrive early, to answer it if it rings. It rings. A lot.
After 17 years counselling at-risk youth in the Blake Street project sandwiched between Pape and Jones south of Danforth, an impoverished, high-density and almost invisible pocket in otherwise flush Riverdale, Cohen's number is programmed into many a cellphone speed dial.
The province announced $30 million a few weeks back for 13 troubled areas, but this problem-packed neighbourhood didn't make the list a function perhaps of Cohen's success. Still, the Blake Boultbee experience offers a vista on what it's going to take to turn kids' lives around. Hint: it'll take more than short-lived drop-in programs.
Cohen eventually lumbers down the narrow stairs of this tiny former crack house on Blake with a client in tow. Broad-shouldered and well over 6 feet tall, Cohen, in wire-rimmed glasses and sandals, looks like a cross between an ex-hippie who's reluctantly given in to the minimum haircut required to keep a straight job and an ex-defenceman who's now too busy to break heads at the blue line.
His client, Rob Thorton, on the other hand, wears a street punk's baggy pants and hoodie, a fashion link, perhaps, to a world he's left behind.
"There's no one I've shared as much with as I have with Rod," says the 27-year-old Thorton. "There's no way I would be on the track I am now if I hadn't had him in my life."
In the social services community, a great puzzle looms beyond the headline issue of funding programs: how do you get at-risk youth the gang bangers and the hustlers into a program once you've got it funded, anyway? Thorton, who tells me he's "done a lot of wrong things, violent things," but who now has three young kids and a good job as a forklift operator, answers the question: "I've known Rod since I was eight years old," he says. "He's been around the neighbourhood most of my life, and I trust him."
This testament to longevity and continuity probably isn't the answer government funders want to hear as they scurry about throwing money at short-term programs.
"I'm not an ivory tower kind of guy dropped into a neighbourhood to run a program," says Cohen. "You have to prove yourself with consistency. You've got to get to know the gang guys, the guys with guns. You have to be around."
Cohen has. When he first started working at Blake, his program was connected to a Christian youth ministry and his office was a bench at the local strip mall. He had previously done street outreach with young girls in the sex trade. "That was very, very tough, so I thought this would be a snap."
He was wrong. "There I was on my bench. I had condoms, health info, a bit of money. I saw a group of young guys walking down Blake and I thought, "Great, this is who I'm here to help,' and was just about to get up and approach them when I suddenly froze. What was I really thinking I could do for these kids?"
So for the first several months he just went around the neighbourhood saying hi "until they were wondering "Who the fuck is this guy?'" he says.
Eventually, he discovered what he could do. Merging his training as a psychotherapist with his frontline work, he gradually built a reputation among the toughest kids as a safe place to "unload our personal drama," as one put it to me.'
"If you are truly messed and most probably criminally bound and you are between 16 and 25, you have virtually nowhere to go for help," Cohen says. "These are the young people I try to connect with."
He counsels families, visits clients doing jail time and helps mediate conflicts in the neighbourhood. Some kids are referred to him by local high school guidance counsellors. "But mostly people just come," he says.
Currently, he sees about 30 people on a regular basis each week, and upwards of 100 a year come through the door some only once and others for years.
Cohen says it can often take two years before a kid will really want to talk. "Look, these kids aren't going to open up on the basketball court. Rec programs are fine, but no one is going to say, "Rod, I'm packing [a gun]' or "I'm hustling' there. In fact, the very kids who are doing that are likely not going to be reached by putting up more basketball courts."
Lynne Raskin has watched Cohen work over the years both from her perch as exec director of the South Riverdale Community Health Centre and recently as a BBYOS board member. (BBYOS is a registered charity.)
"It is a testament to the job Rod does that, despite running basically a one-person operation, he's developed such amazing, deep relationships in the community," she says.
There have been setbacks over the 17 years, clients who've been killed or ended up in jail. The death of well- known neighbourhood youth worker Kempton Howard just before Christmas 2003 rocked Cohen to the core. He didn't know Howard well, since he wasn't in need of what Cohen has to offer. But at least one of those charged with the murder was a regular at BBYOS, and Cohen says he had to go pretty deep inside himself to separate this from the thought of the hundreds of other kids it could have been. "I felt a deep sense of failure. I kept asking myself, "How did I miss this?'"
In a city beset by a mounting crisis, is a program that painstakingly invests two to three years in one-on-one trust-building before it gets going worth the attention of government funders?
"Any model of working with young people needs a Rod Cohen," says Bruce MacDougall, formerly executive director of Regent Park's Dixon Hall and now head of the West Hill Community Health Centre. "Funders think, "Well, we can get 30 kids on a basketball courtâ' but rec programs don't have the capacity to zero in on or even know the real lost kids."
Cohen spends about 20 per cent of his time fundraising for his program, which is totally supported by individual and corporate donors. In a perfect world, Cohen estimates that BBYOS needs about $150,000 a year to fund the service properly, with a second therapist. As it stands now, he has to maintain a modest private practice to supplement the small salary he draws.
It doesn't seem like tons of dough, but since amalgamation BBYOS has been shut out of city funds. "We know there are a lot of good things happening out there, but we can't fund everything," says Sue Kaiser, agency review officer in the city's community resources unit.
"At this point we don't fund therapeutic counselling. The irony is that because he has flown under the radar, Rod has had the freedom to work the way he does and build these relationships," says Raskin. "The seeds have been carefully planted, and some modest core funding is needed to grow the program."
Not that Rod Cohen, who has lived in the neighbourhood for years, is going anywhere, funding or no funding.
"This is like a vocation for me," he says. "I don't mean it in the religious sense, but I love the work. And unlike many others in these people's lives, I haven't left."