When Youths Kill Youths


Next week, experts from six cities will gather at a Washington 'summit' to discuss tackling the national epidemic of youth violence. An approach used by one of those cities—Boston—is already sparking debate.

When deadly gun violence happens in Boston, the killing zone is mostly concentrated along a four-mile North-South route in the city named Blue Hill Avenue. And it affects for the most part one segment of the population who are either perpetrators or victims—young men between the ages of 16 and 24.

Those two facts have focused the minds of people determined to find a way to curb an epidemic of death by guns that has plagued Boston for nearly a decade.

The solution seemed logical: develop an intervention program that targeted both the Blue Hill Avenue neighborhoods where most of Boston's gun homicides were occurring, and the youthful population that was responsible for the killing.

So, with help from the Boston Foundation, one of the city's leading non-profits, a program called StreetSafe Boston was launched in the summer of 2009 to do exactly that?but with a controversial added feature. Twenty former gang members were hired to work in so-called “hot-zone” neighborhoods along Blue Hill Avenue, from the South End through Dorchester and Roxbury to Mattapan—the places where young men tend to meet insults with gunfire, and gunfire with revenge.

The short-term results were not promising. By the end of 2010, the number of Boston homicides not only failed to drop?it increased to a worrying new high of 72. That continued an upward trend from the year ending in December 2008, when 63 Bostonian homicide victims were recorded—more than half of them under the age of 30.

Nevertheless, StreetSafe's defenders and staff say the grim stats don't tell the whole story of what has been achieved on Boston's streets. They point for example to the fact that the program has been able to connect with 300 so-called “impact players” responsible for violence in the target neighborhoods, all of them gang members.

At the same time, the program, with the help of community partners such as local YMCA branches and the city's housing authority, has been able to offer alternatives to violence by making available a network of resources such as mental health services, vocational counseling, tutoring housing assistance.

Defenders argue that such programs take time to achieve a real impact. The essential point, they say, is that efforts to tackle youth violence must begin at the source of the problem: in the neighborhoods where the lack of economic opportunities and social problems combine in an explosive mix.

“We've seen Harvard University research estimating that one percent of Boston's population—young people, overwhelmingly—commit 50 percent of the gun crime,” says Robert Lewis Jr., Vice President for Programs at The Boston Foundation, “We knew that to serve this one percent, in these key areas along Blue Hill Avenue, we needed (people) with street credibility and experience.”

Chris Byner, who runs Boston's city-wide street outreach program, admits it can be “tough” to convince skeptics that there are other ways to measure the effectiveness of such programs besides tracking homicide statistics.

“You can show that the program is important by showing the work you've done—by asking 'how many interventions have your outreach workers done, how many kids are just going to school?'” says Byner, whose employees work together with StreetSafe's staff.

Nationwide Approach

StreetSafe can take some comfort in the fact that others around the country are facing the same challenges. Next week, experts from six cities (including Boston) will gather in Washington DC for a two-day Youth Violence Summit to compare notes. The participants, which include teams from Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Salinas and San Jose, will be addressed by Attorney General Eric Holder.

The April 4-5 Youth Violence Summit is an outgrowth of an initiative launched last year by President Barack Obama, called the National Forum on Youth Violence. The Forum's goal, according to the Department of Justice press release announcing the meeting is to “reduce violence, improve opportunities for youth, and encourage innovation at both local and federal levels.”

Needless to say, the problem of youth violence has been a recurring phenomenon. Street outreach programs have been established over the past 20 years in troubled urban neighborhoods from California to Rhode Island.

Boston in fact was one of the pioneers. Street-level programs were a component of a large anti-violence effort in Boston in the 1990s, in which local and federal law enforcement, clergy, and community partners collaborated in an effort to end what were then soaring homicide rates. Central to that effort was the communication of a clear message to gangs: if any single gang member engages in violence, the authorities will come down hard on the entire gang.

The effort influenced prevention programs around the country—and several have reported successful results. The Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) modeled in part after the Boston effort, was initiated in 2007 in response to high homicide rates. Two years after the launch of CIRV, homicide hit a five year low of 60 in 2009.

Chicago's Ceasefire program has gained national attention for its use of so-called “violence interrupters”, who connect with gang leaders to mediate violent disputes. Ceasefire counted over 500 conflicts mediated by interrupters in 2010. The program has been influential to intervention efforts around the country, including in Baltimore, Maryland.

In Stockton, California, the municipal government's street outreach program is notable for providing service to children as young as 10. “When we see kids get into high school already carrying the attitude, we decided to make a strategic decision to focus on younger kids,” says Ralph Womack, the Stockton program manager.

In Providence, RI, the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence (ISPN), has become a prominent player in the city's efforts to stem youth violence. ISPN, which recently moved into a new facility renovated at a cost of over $5 million, offers streetworkers, victims' services, and a summer jobs program, which accepted 80 kids last summer.

Yet even the most successful programs can run into trouble. In an incident that shows the audacity of gun violence in Providence, two men were shot in front of ISPN's facility—considered a safe zone in the city—in broad daylight on March 18.

Funding is also a constant concern. Despite favorable reviews of its role in the city, CIRV's budget was recently cut from $800,000 to less than $200,000. And it can be difficult for groups to demonstrate the effectiveness of a program beyond the bottom-line metric of a city-wide homicide rate.

In Boston, StreetSafe hopes to raise $20 million from foundations and private supporters to sustain its program over the next five years. (The Boston Foundation currently spends one million dollars a year to support program operations.) Lewis concedes it will be hard to convince donors who are being asked to support a neighborhood-targeted intervention program while city-wide homicide numbers increase.

“Our donors have asked us 'why can't we do this violence prevention across the entire city?'” Lewis admits.

“You have to remember that this population is very difficult to reach, very expensive to reach,” adds Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, of Inquilinos Boriquas en Accion, one of StreetSafe's partners. “I certainly hope they can maintain the budget; it's hard for everyone [in the nonprofit sector] right now,”

Police Skepticism

The premise of the approach—using former gang leaders as streetworkers—has attracted skepticism from police and others. Critics contend that placing former offenders in high-crime, high-violence environments provides opportunities to re-offend.

Many police agencies argue that giving former offenders, particularly ex-gang members, special legitimacy as streetworkers, can be counterproductive. They claim that ex-gangbangers may not be able to resist the temptation to return to their old habits—and could use the 'legitimacy' provided by such programs to strengthen their authority in the gangs.

Some of the skepticism, however, also arises from the fact that police officers trained to view gang bosses as “enemies” who must be taken off the streets are being asked to view them now as potential partners.

To help break such stereotypes in Los Angeles, a non-profit called the Advancement Project has successfully partnered with police in a training initiative that brings together officers and intervention workers for candid dialogue.

Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Pat Gannon says the Advancement Project training has convinced once-doubtful officers that such programs have merit. .

“At the lieutenant and sergeant level, we now have pretty good buy-in throughout the entire [department] regarding the benefits of gang interventionists,” says Gannon.

But the programs themselves also say they recognize the problem. Two of StreetSafe's workers were arrested, one for allegations of assault and, in the other case, of counterfeiting and heroin possession. The employees have since been fired.

StreetSafe executive director Edward Powell notes that every applicant is checked with the Boston Police Department and, once hired, streetworkers must attend daily roll-call.

“We have a one-strike policy,” adds Lewis. “If you (cross the line), you get terminated,”

But the ultimate proof for doubters will still likely be statistics. A study by Harvard University of StreetSafe Boston's impact on violent crime is expected this summer—and both Lewis and Powell are confident it will show they are making progress.

They could be right. By March 21 last year, the city had suffered 11 homicides. All but two of the victims were under 30. At the same point this year, homicide has taken the lives of just five people. Four of them were under 30.

Josh Allen is a freelance writer in New England.

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