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Ex-member of Crips gang in Seattle credits an adult mentor with helping him to break from gang
A 34-year-old former gang members credits a city of Seattle initiative that provided adult mentors, jobs and recreation for helping him break away from being in a gang. Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed an $8 million initiative to combat youth violence that is running into opposition.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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The Seattle Times is taking a closer look at the culture of youth violence — the perpetrators, the victims and the people trying to stop the cycle. We invite readers to share their experiences, suggest stories and ask questions.
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Saved from gang life
Javier Luna owns a successful construction business and a million-dollar view home near Dash Point in Tacoma. Until the recent economic downturn, his firm employed 13 people and worked with another 40 subcontractors. He volunteers at his youngest children's elementary school. His oldest son started college in the fall at the University of Washington.
It's not a future many would have predicted for the former Franklin High School student and one-time gang member. In the late 1980s, when gangs from Los Angeles and Chicago imported drive-by shootings and a devastating trade in crack cocaine to Seattle streets, Luna wore the blue colors of the Crips. He carried a gun and sold drugs. Most of his friends ended up dead or in prison, he said.
Luna, 34, credits the complete turnaround in his life, even his survival, to a city of Seattle initiative that provided adult mentors, jobs and recreation to young gang members.
"I got all of this because an individual gave me a chance and believed in me and the system allowed it," he said.
Luna's caseworker, Mathis Hill, who at the time worked for the Seattle agency YouthCare, brought him together with other gang members from around the city. Hill took him shopping for clothes and food, helped him land a city job, and offered "straight talk" — where life in a gang would lead and how he could work toward more positive goals.
As the city confronts a new wave of youth violence and gang activity, several of the men who worked almost 20 years ago as caseworkers and mentors under the umbrella organization, Seattle Team for Youth, said the program lost its focus in recent years and may be one factor in the return of gang violence.
"What we're seeing today are the children of the people I dealt with 20 years ago. These are their kids," said Hill, a King County juvenile-detention officer who was Luna's caseworker and mentor from 1990 to 1993.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed an $8 million initiative to combat youth violence that would identify 800-high risk children and provide them with caseworkers and a range of social services.
But the proposal has already run into opposition from some City Council members who say it focuses too much on prevention and doesn't adequately address the need for uniformed police officers in select high schools and for stronger measures to prevent illegal gun sales.
"The City Council is not going to release money until we see a more balanced plan," said Councilmember Tim Burgess, who said there were 136 gang-related gun crimes in 2008, including 11 homicides.
The Seattle Police Department has been reluctant to identify specific crimes as gang-related absent a suspect or an established motive but has acknowledged the growing youth violence.
"I was with that gang"
Javier Luna said he was an angry Puerto Rican immigrant, one of nine children being raised by a single mother, when a member of the Crips pulled him from harms' way during a drive-by shooting outside Franklin in 1988.
"From then on, I was with that gang," he said.
His caseworker, Hill, remembers the 15-year-old as being "gang crazy — throwing up signs, fighting with rivals, and starting to get into criminal activities."
A Seattle police gang-unit officer paid a visit to Luna's house, part of a partnership the department had with Seattle Team for Youth.
"He said, 'You come in, be a part of this [Team for Youth], reframe your mind, or we're going to have a police vehicle in front of your house 24/7,' " Luna recalled.
Under the program, about 500 youth per year were assigned to or recruited by one of 11 case managers at five social-service agencies such as Seattle Youth and Community Services and the Atlantic Street Center. A network of agencies also provided counseling and drug-and-alcohol treatment.
Twenty years later, what stands out for Luna is how Hill and the other caseworkers brought gang members together to eat and share their stories, to play basketball or to box, and to go on field trips to parks and beaches. The city also gave them vouchers to purchase clothes and food.
"After you know that person, sit down and have a meal with them or see them at Sears buying clothes just like you, how can you fight them?" Luna asked.
Under Hill's tutelage, Luna became a prize boxer, winning nine state Golden Glove awards. It was a constructive outlet for his temper, Luna said, and it left him too tired to get in trouble. Luna also participated in a city jobs program that gave preference to kids who faced obstacles finding employment.
He worked for three summers with the city Parks Department before landing a permanent job. He said the skills and adult mentors he found there enabled him to launch his own business in 1998.
Larry Evans, now an aide to Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, was another case manager and gang-intervention specialist. He said the Team for Youth program was successful because it worked across agency boundaries and allowed the mentors to go into schools and homes and to respond day or night as they were needed.
"It wasn't just a job for us, it was a passion," he said.
But as the violence diminished, Evans said, "the city shifted its priorities." He said the number of jobs available to youth decreased and high-risk kids were no longer given hiring preference.
The city in 2004 turned its attention to students failing to pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) or to graduate from high school, and did less outreach to dropouts.
A 1991 city levy paid for new community centers including Garfield and Rainier, some with late-night programs to keep teens off the streets. But Evans said that over the past decade, the staff and programming at these centers has "gentrified."
"The existing city programs are not for kids that are heavily gang-involved. They're not for the kids at highest risk."
Team for Youth may have been a victim of its own success, said Eric Anderson, director of Youth Development for the city. As the program became better known, there were more referrals from the courts and schools and less need for outreach.
But Anderson said that even as the emphasis for the program shifted, the city continued to partner with the courts and schools to serve at-risk youth. "We never really stopped working with dropouts," he said.
Nickel's youth-violence initiative does call for community centers to develop new programing for high-risk teens, said Holly Miller, director of the city's Office for Education. She said that while the original Team for Youth model was in many ways successful, outcomes were poorly documented and the program needed refocusing after 18 years.
Miller agreed that the emphasis on academic success reached too few youth. She said the new initiative will include outreach and case management and the city will target young people who are most at risk to participate in or become victims of violence. The city will ask for better data, will increase the number of community partnerships referring youth and supporting them, and will make course corrections based on the results.
"We're not going to wait if something isn't working. We're taking a very focused approach," she said.
Still, Evans is skeptical about the mayor's initiative. He's concerned that the money will go to agencies charged with administering the programs and not directly to those providing mentoring and case management.
He said that when the city began to shift its attention to academic success and away from outreach to kids who'd already left school, he predicted that gang activity would return. Now that crime statistics bear out that fear, he hopes the city won't repeat the mistake.
"The core issues that resulted in kids joining gangs — poverty, broken families, hopelessness, the loss of a culture that supports education — those didn't go anywhere," Evans said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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