Gangs: How to stay safe

A gang is a group of people who operate with a shared identity and purpose. Often, a gang’s purpose may include carrying out illegal activities like drug dealing, assault, prostitution, theft or breaking and entering.

Gangs often use the lure of “belonging” to recruit new members. They may promise things like friendship, money, respect, drugs and change. They often control crime on the streets, carry weapons, break laws and are often on the run from the police and other gangs. Discrimination and racist beliefs can also fuel gangs and their behaviour.

How do I identify a gang?

Most gang members are proud of their affiliation and will freely admit their membership. Gang members sometimes share commonalities like clothing or tattoos and hang out in large groups, often at night and in the same area of the neighbourhood.

Are gangs dangerous?

Gangs can be very dangerous both to the people around them and to their own members. Gang leaders are usually involved in illegal behaviour. Junior gang members are often tested or forced into performing dangerous tasks because they lack a criminal record.

You may see a higher rate of gang activity in locations struggling with poverty — gangs are viewed as a way of “survival” in communities with limited options and high rates of violence.

If you find yourself thinking about joining a gang, here are some things to consider:

  • When you first encounter a gang, you may be given tasks which seem “safe.” Keep in mind that the situation may become more and more dangerous over time.
  • Gang members often live in fear every day — fear of getting caught by the police, violence from other gangs or even members inside their own gang.
  • Gangs are known to punish their own members.
  • You may serve jail time if convicted of a crime.
  • You may be forced into situations where you need to choose the gang over your friends or family.
  • While they may appear to be your friend, gang leaders are known to prioritize themselves over everyone else.
  • Violence is expected and encouraged in gangs — you may be pushed into hurting others.

What are the consequences of joining a gang?

While a gang can seem like a way out or a means to “belong,” members usually pay the price for their decisions. Remember that:

  • criminal records directly affect your ability to get a job or travel
  • in Canada, the police have the right to take away anything that is stolen or purchased with money earned through criminal activity
  • prisons can be violent, unsafe and lonely

How do I stay safe?

Whether you’re a member or not, gangs are a reality for many young people.

It’s important that you understand not only the dangers of joining, but also how to stay safe and away from gangs.

Even if you’re not a gang member, you may still find yourself at risk of gang activity. Here are some things you can do to stay safe:

  • Surround yourself with good people: avoid people who experiment with dangerous behaviour.
  • Team up: join a team/club or try new hobbies like drawing, music or photography.
  • Be yourself: you don’t need to dress or act like others to make friends.
  • Stay in school: education is the best way to open other opportunities in life, like getting a good job.
  • Avoid drugs: they are a big part of gang culture. They are addictive, may distract you from the things that really matter in life and can do physical harm to your body.
  • Speak up: if you find yourself in a dangerous situation involving a gang, tell someone.

If you’re worried about gangs, you can call a Kids Help Phone counsellor at 1-800-668-6868 or chat with us online.

How do I get out of a gang?

Everyone makes mistakes. If you’ve found yourself in a gang situation, there’s help available.  

Leaving a gang can be very dangerous. Don’t do it alone. There are professionals who specialize in gang exiting and they can help you make the transition as safe as possible.

Who can I talk to?

Don’t tell anyone in the gang that you want to leave. This could put your safety at risk. You can call a Kids Help Phone counsellor at 1-800-668-6868. They can connect you with people who have experience in gang exiting and put you in touch with programs that can help you leave.

Helping a friend get out of a gang

It’s not easy to see a friend or loved one risk their life in a gang. There are things you can do to help.

The best part about having friends and family is that they’re there for you in times of need. If you find yourself worried about a loved one because of a situation they’re in, often the most powerful thing you can do is talk to them.

Tell your friend how you feel. It’s OK to say that you’re worried or scared for them, but be careful not to get involved in gang activities yourself.

Need more information or support? You can contact Kids Help Phone 24/7.