Nascarzprogram: The mechanics

You wouldn’t know it just from looking at him — he’s a big guy with a serious suit and hair cut — but Vancouver Police Detective Cst. Tim Houchen gets kismet. He believes in it and that it’s worth waiting for.
Though he has none of his own he gets kids too, even troubled ones, and believes that there is something better we can do for them than let them fall out of favour, through cracks, and into the justice system.
Houchen is a 22-year veteran of policing. He did an 11-year stint with the Toronto Police Department, and seven of those were in its infamous Division 51. The Division includes Regent Park and Ontario Housing. The police building is old with a 12-foot chained-link and barbed-wire fence surrounding it. Anything can happen there and it did.
Upon moving to Vancouver Houchen was a Downtown East side beat cop and today he is the Vancouver Police Department’s only hate crime officer. And, “as a result of what you see you say, ‘something’s got to change,’ and when we go six years down the road that is what NasKarz is about,” Houchen says.
The NasKarz program is about cars, cars and kids, kids who steal cars or who are at-risk of stealing them, kids at risk of damaging lives, including their own. And Detective Houchen is about cars too; he has been all of his life. But, for him it started at home, not on mean streets.
“When you look at meaningful conversations between a parent and kid,” Houchen says, “those conversations were over mechanics with my dad, fixing a car, a boat, a truck. That’s where our meaningful conversations took place.”
Houchen says that everyday conversations such as discipline or parents issuing directives to their kids “never contain that kind of meaning or connection.”
Meaningful conversations are more likely to happen in relaxed settings over shared interests where positive connections occur naturally. That’s what Houchen knows and those are the kinds of thoughts he had walking the beat. He wondered what would happen if a few Downtown East side kids worked together on a car, but not for long. His gut told him it would work for them just as it had worked for him. So, he tossed the idea around the department but couldn’t find a way to make it work. It was hard to get colleagues and superiors interested. It was frustrating.
Traveling the same beat as Houchen were kids who never thought of cops as being real guys, men with a life, much less than one who has a 1933 pick-up truck and a 1935 Ford Police Sedan that he’s “going to hot rod.”
Indeed, there is a lot of bumpy road between cops on the beat and kids living close to or on the street. And, when they do meet at the center line it’s usually because there’s been some trouble.
“It goes into roles,” Houchen says. “You look at the officer who has to arrest these kids. You start talking about what the law says and what you have to do. When you’re called to a car theft, police don’t have much choice about how to deal with it, there’s rules and procedures, so there isn’t a chance to talk and connect. Kids don’t always understand that.”
However, inner-city community centres do. Alex Vasiljević, Ray-Cam’s community youth worker, was also aggravated in his efforts to start a program for youth that involved cars. Two like minds working the same side of the street shared a great idea but had no connection to each other until kismet struck in the form of an introduction by a mutual contact.
“That’s when their common idea for a youth mechanics program got some traction.”
“Tim had done some leg work so I knew he was serious,” Vasiljević says. “He did fund-raising and he likes cars. We have kids who like cars, and he just happens to be a police officer. He went Nike on it and ‘just did it’.”
“I love cars, always have. It’s one of the things that I’m doing for myself. It’s what I want to do in my
the mechanicsretirement,” Houchen says.
But, in the meantime, Houchen is polishing up his mechanical skills with NasKarz, the kids and the cars at Vancouver Community College in a mostly volunteer capacity. And, he offered his police sedan to the program for the kids to work on. Eventually, the Vancouver Police Department will reimburse him for the car, and the public will be able to see it at local events.
Kids in the NasKarz full-time program attend VCC from Tuesday to Friday, 8:30am to 4:30pm through July and August. An earlier part-time program runs twice a week for four hours in May and June. A pool of 25 kids make up the entire program. Participants are recognized in stages, and each month an individual that’s doing really well receives a trophy. Upon completion of the program, the kids get a small honorarium donated by CKNW Radio’s Orphan’s Fund.