University of Victoria instructor and co-author of Mean Streets: Youth Crime and Homelessness. Cambridge UP, 1997. [John Hagan]
Mean Streets: Youth Crime and Homelessness (Cambridge University Press $49.95)
I had the standard adolescent problems and decided to leave home and hitchhike out West when I was 18,” says UVic's Bill McCarthy, who slept on park benches, hung out in the streets and occasionally went without meals.
McCarthy eventually returned home, went back to school in Ontario and earned his PhD, studying a topic he was well acquainted with. Between 1985 and 1992, McCarthy and John Hagan collected interviews and data from 400 youth in Vancouver and Toronto, compiling one of the most in depth studies to date on class, youth crime and homelessness.
Their research in Mean Streets: Youth Crime and Homelessness (Cambridge University Press $49.95) reveals that kids on the street in Vancouver are much more likely to be involved in street crime than kids on the street in Toronto.
“We found that Vancouver's lack of shelters and services increased street youth's involvement in a variety of crimes,” says McCarthy.
He also points out that, “just because people are on the street doesn't mean that they will commit crimes.”
From his own experiences, McCarthy had some ideas about how class affected crime among street youth but he was surprised by the extent of trouble within the families that the youth came from.
“Half of the kids couldn't answer the question about family background because by the time they ended up on the street they had lived in seven or eight different family settings including foster homes,” he says. “Many had to leave home because the situation there was so bad.”
With his shaved head, relaxed manner and experience working with troubled youth, McCarthy was easily able to blend in with streetkids for field work. But McCarthy is quick to make the distinction between his time on the streets and the situation facing the street kids today.
“When I was young, it was a completely different social climate. There were lots of people out travelling, seeing the world and there were jobs available. And I knew that if I wanted to go home, I could. The kids surveyed in Mean Streets had far fewer options than I did. Living on the streets for them was less of a choice.”
Mean Streets shows that a decrease in social services means an increase in crime.
“There's no question about it, you have to provide services to get youth off the street,” says McCarthy. “Or you end up spending far more on policing, prisons, courts, etc. The prognosis is not a 100 per cent success rate, but over the long term they will be less likely to commit crimes. Economically crime is a bad thing for society. It costs less to have shelters and employment training programs.”