EDITOR’S NOTE: With 1,076 known gangs and 80,757 gang members in Los Angeles County (according to the LA Sheriff’s Department) LA is still the gang capital of the nation. To address the gang violence problem that has tens of thousands of our city’s children reporting that they are scared on their walk to school, Los Angeles has budgeted $26 million.
So, is our city using that pot of taxpayer dollars well and wisely? Are the programs it buys making our violence-haunted communities safer? Are they effective in helping kids-on-the-edge stay out of gangs? Do they offer tools and alternatives to those desperately seeking a route out of gang life?
These are some of the questions we asked with our two-part investigation: Follow the Gang Money, reported and written by Matt Fleischer (and copy edited by Craig Gaines).
Follow the Gang Money is the first effort to come out of the LA Justice Report, which was created through a partnership between WLA and Spot.Us.
In the course of his investigation, reporter Matt Fleischer found bright spots, to be sure. But he also found a city gang program mired in secrecy, plagued by bureaucratic bungling, and lacking in the kind of accountability that was repeatedly promised when all of LA’s gang dollars were transferred from the city council to the mayor’s office.
In Part 1, Matt looked at the city’s flawed gang prevention program and why it was systematically excluding many of LA’s kids who most needed its services.
Now he looks at the rest of the story with his exploration of the city’s gang intervention program.
In doing so, he finds a whole new set of bureaucratic screw ups that resulted in even more wasted evaluation money than the City Controller originally reported.
Even more troubling, he finds that the strategy in which the city has invested most of its intervention $$—touted as the model for the nation—is in fact a copy of a much criticized program that has been shown in multiple studies to be ineffective at best and, when replicated in one city, actually harmful.
You’ll find the details and more in Part 2 of Follow the Gang Money.
PART TWO: THE INTERVENTIONISTS
Is the city pouring its gang dollars into a strategy that won’t work?
by Matthew Fleischer
Jose Leon remembers the first time he saw a shootout in the streets of his Boyle Heights neighborhood. “I was 5 years old and staying at my uncle’s place. I looked out the window and saw this guy running down the middle of the street, shooting. I got scared.”
A squat, powerful man with a shaved head, tattoos peeking out of his sleeves and eyes that read much older than his 21 years, Jose’s life in Boyle Heights got, if anything, more traumatic as the years passed until it read like a blueprint for gang membership by the time he was an adolescent.
“I had aunts and uncles who used to slang [sell drugs]. They were from the old neighborhood—Soto Street.”
As Jose got older, the shootings in his neighborhood became a routine part of his day, and fear of street life turned to fascination. He joined a tagging crew when he was 11 and joined a full-fledged street gang shortly thereafter. He was stabbed at age 14 when a rival crew ambushed him at Roosevelt High School.
“I got stuck in the stomach,” he says. “Spent a few days in the hospital.”
When Jose graduated from Roosevelt in 2006, he thought about getting out of gang life. But he was unsure how to replace the camaraderie and the income, frankly, that the gang world provided. He tried to find a job, but with no luck: By that time, Jose had a criminal record and no one wanted to take the risk in hiring him.
So he continued to sell drugs to get by when things were lean.
Then, two years ago, Jose saw a road out when he began working with Johnny Godines, a local gang intervention worker with the East LA nonprofit Soledad Enrichment Action (SEA). Jose had met Godines back in high school. He was an old-timer who had turned his life around and was now helping kids in the schools and on the streets. Godines knew the game, knew all Jose was going through, and had kept an eye out for him. But more importantly, he was a friend and mentor who constantly reminded Jose there were better things in life than what gangs had to offer.
“Johnny and me had some really good conversations. He said things that made me start thinking about me.”
Nearly eight months ago, thanks to his relationship with Godines, Jose landed a job in SEA’s human resources department. Now he works 8:30 to 5 to support his infant son and says he has no desire to return to gang life. By all accounts, Jose’s is a true gang-intervention success story—the kind that the city would seemingly want to see replicated with other troubled youth across the city.
But even though SEA is the largest organization within the Gang Reduction and Youth Development network (it runs one-third of the GRYD’s 12 neighborhood zones) stories like Jose’s are rare within the city-run program. Therapy, education, tattoo removal, and especially job training and placement—the kinds of things that are essential in helping gang members to leave the life for good—are not the priorities of the roughly $7 million intervention side of the $26 million program. (GRYD also has a prevention component [see Part 1 of this series].) Instead, the city’s intervention focus is on something called “proactive peacemaking,” otherwise known as hardcore street intervention.
GRYD’s intervention model is based on Chicago’s “CeaseFire” program, and it works like this: Local men and women–often former gang members who still have clout on the streets–are assigned to the GRYD neighborhood zone they are most familiar with, and instructed to sniff out threats of retributive violence between gang members and to try to broker truces between rival gangs. Intervention workers serve as both liaisons between gangs—a reliable means of transmitting messages between rivals—and sources of street expertise for the Los Angeles Police Department, with whom they have weekly meetings to discuss hotspots and crime trends and are supposed to contact if a violent showdown seems imminent.
GRYD has codified this method of intervention by investing $200,000 per year in the Los Angeles Violence Intervention Training Academy (LAVITA), which is attempting to train and professionalize street intervention workers and standardize their approach in the field.
“Our mission is not to break up a gang,” says Susan Lee, the Advancement Project’s director of urban peace, who oversees LAVITA. “Our mission is to reduce violence. We are about peacemaking.”
Advancement Project co-director and civil rights attorney Connie Rice explains the mission in more detail: “Hardcore police suppression has not reduced gang influence in our city. Gangs saturate the physical spaces of our neighborhoods: parks, schools, hospitals. We’ve let this problem get to the point where we need people with the street credibility to negotiate with gangs. Police can’t do it. Academics can’t do it. Politicians can’t do it. I can’t do it. These guys can.”
LAPD agrees, and though initially skeptical of street interventionists, they have come around to viewing these men and women as a useful component of violence reduction. “Without question we call on these guys,” says Northeast LAPD Captain Bill Murphy. “It’s my experience they know what’s going on and they provide options for how to deal with various situations. You can’t just arrest your way out of a problem.”
But while the idea of training former gang members to roam their old stomping grounds and talk their homies into forgoing violence has an undeniable narrative sexiness, and the backing of the LAPD, it’s an open question whether this strategy actually has a measurable impact. There is much evidence to suggest that, absent other services and active community involvement, “proactive peacemaking” produces no long-term effect, and in certain instances can even make things worse. In a 2010 RAND study of Pittsburgh’s GRYD-like street intervention program, RAND researcher Jeremy Wilson theorizes “that the presence of outreach workers increased the cohesion of gangs, making some groups more organized, in turn leading to increased violence.”
The real $26 million question facing Los Angeles is why are we basing a gang-reduction strategy on a model that has no proven long-term results?
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A LIFE?
On a hot, muggy day in mid-May, Father Greg Boyle enters the front door of Homeboy Industries in downtown Los Angeles to find several hundred current and former gang members staring him in the face.
“Happy birthday,” the entire room yells in unison before launching into song—once in English and once in Spanish.
Boyle professes surprise, but the secret birthday party has become an annual rite of spring at Homeboy Industries, America’s largest gang-intervention program. Boyle’s efforts have helped thousands of kids escape gang life and have earned him a national reputation. This year, however, while cake is passed around and conversation flows, there’s somber reality lying just beneath the surface of the celebratory mood. Virtually all of its more than 427 employees have just been laid off, and the future of the program is in serious doubt. News of Homeboy’s financial troubles have gone national—yet the program is nowhere near to raising the $5 million it needs to continue to run its programs. Its fate, and the fate of all those celebrating, is a giant question mark.
The potential catastrophic cuts in Homeboy’s services come at an especially crucial time since, with unemployment still in double digits, former gang members needing jobs are coming to them for help in greater numbers than ever. Homeboy, as well as organizations like the Toberman Neighborhood Center in San Pedro, practice a different type of intervention from the city’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development network—a services-based model that focuses on turning gang members into productive members of society instead of the tourniquet approach of asking gang members not to shoot at each other.
“We don’t deal with gangs, we deal with gang members,” says Boyle.
The logic behind the approach is similar to the CIA’s refusal to negotiate with terrorist organizations—although Boyle certainly wouldn’t put it in those terms. Instead of dealing with the gangs themselves, Homeboy serves gang members, plus men and women freshly out of prison and on parole, who want to turn their lives around. There are tens of thousands in each category, 12,000 of whom walk through the doors of Homeboy Industries every year looking to reinvent their lives.
Homeboy Industries offers various types of job training and placement programs. Its solar panel installation training program in partnership with East L.A. Skills Center has a long waiting list. Homeboy also has its own businesses, which employ 150 to 200 former gang members: Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen and Embroidery, Homeboy Merchandise, Homeboy Maintenance and the Homegirl Café. In addition, the program offers tattoo removal, GED prep, computer training, substance abuse counseling, legal advice, reentry services for parolees and juvenile probationers, comprehensive mental health and family counseling.
In other words, Homeboy Industries offers the basic services that a gang member most needs to send his or her life in a productive direction.
Boyle admits he is not a big fan of the hardcore street intervention method. Before developing Homeboy, Boyle says he practiced street intervention for nearly a decade, brokering truces, racing late at night between warring gangs to calm violent situations, chasing down individual kids who he knew were at risk of shooting. But by the mid-1990s he concluded that it was not an effective strategy. He also says sending in former gang members to do street intervention keeps them bound to the gang milieu.
“You wouldn’t send a recovering alcoholic into a bar to recruit for AA,” says Boyle. “It’s the same principle here. People have to want to leave this life behind.”
But is there evidence that the services-based model works any better?
As it turns out, there is. Homeboy Industries reports a 70 percent retention rate, which is quite high given that 30 percent is considered good among program evaluators. (Alcoholics Anonymous has a 10 percent retention rate.)“And out of the 30 percent who drop out [of the Homeboy programs],” says Mona Hobson, Homeboy’s director of development, 10 percent to 15 percent return “when they’re ready to embrace the program.”
Homeboy’s individual programs show similarly upbeat results. For instance, Liz Miller of the University of California, Davis, studied 502 clients of Homeboy’s Mental Health Education and Treatment Assistance Service, and found a dive in “depressive symptoms” from 64 percent to 26 percent during a three-month period.
Now Homeboy is being evaluated even more rigorously. UCLA researchers are two years into a five-year longitudinal study of the program’s effectiveness. The research regarding Homeboy’s success in transforming its clients’ mental and behavioral health isn’t final, but lead researcher Jorja Leap, an adjunct associate professor at UCLA’s Department of Social Welfare, says: “Homeboy is off the chart at stemming the tide of reincarceration. Simply in terms of cost effectiveness, services at Homeboy cost about $40,000 per person per year. It costs upward of $120,000 a year to put a person through the criminal justice system. And the preliminary evaluation outcomes [at Homeboy] are remarkable.”
Homeboy isn’t the only model in Los Angeles that has shown proven results. Leap also spent two years evaluating the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI), run by longtime interventionist Aquil Basheer, who’s been doing this type of work since 1969, and found promising results. Basheer’s training methods yielded a 95 percent retention rate.
Interestingly, unlike Homeboy, Basheer’s model incorporates hardcore street intervention into its services-based approach. “I applaud the city and anyone out there trying to save lives,” says Basheer. “But if gang intervention is an octopus, hardcore street intervention is just one tentacle.”
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