Four nights a week, Wanda Kent drives east, across Winnipeg’s Red River and down a long cul-de-sac to a dilapidated, grey stucco building. “On my first visit,” says the single, unemployed mother of five, “I thought I had the wrong address.” Inside the softly lit East End Cultural and Leisure Centre, however, is plush carpeting and a stage, as well as a soundproof recording studio. Keyboards and a range of guitars line the walls. There’s even a piano used by performers at the 2014 Juno Awards.
Kent has been bringing her 12-year-old twin girls here for two years. It’s a chance to escape the North End, an area afflicted with the highest rates of reported muggings and assaults in the city, and where Kent is often afraid to let her children play outside. Tonight, a volunteer lines up Chelsea and Cassie, both dressed in jeans and black tops, with 20 other children, many new arrivals from Sudan and Rwanda. Soon the group is harmonizing along with Serena Ryder’s hit song “Stompa.”
Bouncing his head to the beat at the back of the room, in uniform, is Kevin Gibson. A 47-year-old constable and lifelong singer and guitarist, Gibson started Status4 in 2011 as a way of bringing together the two sides of his life. Over the last year, the after-school music program, which draws on a dozen professionals who come in once a week, has expanded its free lessons to include video production, songwriting and dance. The basic appeal, however, remains the same. “Kids sign up because they want to bang on a drum or hold an electric guitar,” the father of three explains. “They keep coming because it’s a safe place to be and belong.”
The program’s name-police code for “on the scene”-is a reminder of the incident that drove Gibson to spend a year renovating the derelict space. On a December night in 2006, a 21-year-old man opened fire during a drug raid and critically injured two cops, both of them Gibson’s close friends. The shooting left him deeply troubled. “The drug dealer didn’t look much older than the kids I kept picking up for petty crime,” he says. If he was serious about preventing similar tragedies, Gibson needed to do more than haul teens into the station.
For two decades, community leaders have struggled to solve Winnipeg’s street violence. One in five kids belong to unstable, low-income families. The child poverty crisis, explains University of Winnipeg urban studies professor Jim Silver, is a big reason why the city is one of Canada’s crime capitals. “Disadvantaged communities become a breeding ground for criminal activity,” he says. Recent U.S. studies, which link inner-city art programs to lower delinquency and higher grades, show that initiatives like Status4-which last year registered over 100 kids from across the city-can help head off feelings of disaffection before they turn into something more dangerous.
Located in Elmwood, a large working-class neighbourhood Gibson has patrolled for most of his 26-year career, Status4 is open during the hours when teens will typically get into trouble-3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Violence is still a real fear (last October, a 15-year-old boy was stabbed outside his high school), but during Status4’s period of operation, Elmwood has undergone a 30 per cent drop in robberies, break and enters, and car thefts. This turnaround has led city officials to consider funding satellite programs in other no-go zones.
The first set over, Gibson is ready to duck out. He pauses to watch the twin girls run laughing to their mother, sitting on one of the room’s black leather loveseats. Status4 has been good for Gibson as well. “I give these kids my love of music,” he adds, “and they give me extra motivation I take back on the streets.”