Work With Youths In Gangs

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Almost every city with a gang problem has its offering of solutions, ranging from police crackdowns and job training to tutoring and tattoo removal. The models for intervention are endless; making them work is elusive.

A 2007 report from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Best Practices to Address Community Gang Problems, found that most successful gang intervention occurs in communities that mobilize all of their youth-serving groups and keep those groups working together through a lead agency. The problem is this: Implementation of OJJDP’s various and revised Comprehensive Gang Models has produced mixed results, and overall “anti-gang” efforts really come down to creating a network of comprehensive youth development services, which is difficult to do in a way that produces measurable decreases in gang activity.

But when it comes to establishing productive relationships with gang-involved youths – even if just to offset some of their gang activity in hopes of eventually drawing them away – two especially successful strategies stand out: collaboration among youth workers and gaining the respect of the youth on the streets. The OJJDP report noted the importance of hiring youth outreach workers who wield respect among local youth, either because they are former gang members or live in the community.

So what advice should be given to a community like Seattle, where gang activity prompted Mayor Greg Nickels recently to unveil a $9 million proposal to slash youth violence?

Hire the Right People

Mike Rieder, executive director of Haven House Services in Raleigh, N.C., says finding the right type of people to work with youth in gangs can be difficult, but is the single most important factor for success. Haven House runs a boxing program, Second Round, for young people affiliated with or affected by gangs, and Rieder says providing a clear structure for the youths there is central to success. The coaches know how to look for gang signs and conflict, and to address small issues quickly before they escalate.

Second Round is among the many programs that hire ex-gang members to work with such youths, because of the respect they wield in the neighborhoods and the knowledge they have of gang lifestyle. But it’s not always easy to hire ex-offenders. (See “Retired Gangsters Gang Up on Youth,” November 2000, Youth Today).

Vel Garner, project coordinator for the Comprehensive Gang Model in Denver, notes that if a program wants to use ex-offenders, it’s best for nongovernmental partners to do the hiring. “You have to be willing to bend the rules a little,” Garner says, and private nonprofits often have more freedom than government agencies in hiring people with criminal records.

Boston offers an example of how requiring street workers to have clean backgrounds can be counterproductive. Police Commissioner Ed Davis has pointed out that the city’s program of hiring ex-offenders to work street outreach, which began in 1990, is failing because of new and more stringent background-check requirements, and union requirements that protect street outreach workers from plying the streets during the hours when gangs are most active.

Once 40 street workers strong, the Boston program has shrunk by more than two-thirds, and most of the workers have no direct experience on the street. Homicides have increased significantly in recent years, which officials say is an indication of continuing gang violence.

Regardless of the youth workers’ backgrounds, Garner stresses the importance of hiring people willing to hit the streets at the right hours. “You have to be out there, and you have to be visible,” she says. “Find the community activists who are already out there and make them your partners.”

Location, Location

Another challenge is finding a convenient place where the youths can congregate in a positive atmosphere. Few landlords want to lease space for use by gang members or potential gang members. In Raleigh, Haven House runs its boxing program in an old plumbing warehouse.

Unfortunately, finding successful models isn’t easy. From 1995 through 1999, OJJDP launched five demonstration projects of the Comprehensive Gang Model, developed by University of Chicago sociology professor Irving Spergel. The agency found that the projects had minimal impact, due in large part to the cities’ failure to adhere to the model. Replications have shown more success in recent years.

Deborah Huso is a freelance writer in Blue Grass, Va. dhuso@youthtoday.org.