Net Loss

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In 1990, the Southside Posse, the Broadway Gangsters and other gangs struggling for power and control of the crack-cocaine market held much of South Phoenix hostage. People slept on bedroom floors, terrified of random drive-by shootings.

Marcie Escobedo, a divorced mom working at the time as a secretary for the City of Phoenix, says she seldom heard the term "gang," but she knew enough to fear for her children's lives.

"I remember sitting in church with my son and my daughter, and every Sunday for about three Sundays in a row, I know there was a funeral for a 16- or 17-year-old kid," Escobedo recalls.

She thought: "I'm not going to wait until my son is on the ground to do something. I've got to do something -- I don't know what."

She called on Valley Interfaith Project. Founded in the '80s, VIP is a coalition of local faith-based organizations that strives to promote social justice by encouraging members to act, and showing them how.

With the help of other parents, VIP and her own parish, St. Catherine of Siena, Escobedo started an after-school program that eventually drew kids from all over South Phoenix. That program, coupled with increased enforcement efforts by police, made a noticeable difference, she says.

But such efforts are rare in a community plagued by violence. And while the Catholic Church should be commended for its efforts with VIP, the fact remains that Catholic parishes are the most prominent churches in many of the Valley's toughest gang neighborhoods. Of the 74 parishes in the Valley, only nine are enrolled as members of VIP.

"The church is never doing enough in social services and neither is anybody else," says Monsignor Edward Ryle, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference and one of VIP's founding members. "The state of Arizona isn't, other churches aren't. Nobody's doing enough."

This coming year, a coalition of public and private entities led by the City of Phoenix plans to take its Violence Prevention Initiative to state lawmakers for funding. The plan was created over the past two years after 300 civic leaders recognized that tough law-and-order responses to violence weren't enough. The initiative proposes more emphasis on prevention, help for families and economic aid to communities.

Similar efforts are already under way at the state level.

Governor Jane Dee Hull, in conjunction with Arizona State University and the U.S. Department of Justice, is developing a pilot program that would provide local communities with the cash to create programs aimed at making their communities safer. The idea is to bundle state, federal and other funds and dole out meaningful amounts to a few communities, according to George Weisz, the governor's policy guru on law enforcement issues.

For the first time, a coordinated effort would direct money to prevention programs and economic development initiatives, not just law enforcement, Weisz says.

"We need to do a better job," says Weisz. "And we need to ensure that we get the best bang for our buck, and we think this effort may be the way to turn around entire communities."

Phoenix Parks Director James Colley walked into a political maelstrom when he took over the department in 1979.

Phoenix had decided to impose a new sanitation service charge on all customers, including schools, beginning in 1980. That year, the fee averaged at least $32 a month for each school.

School superintendents -- already hit by dramatically rising inflation and energy costs of the 1970s -- balked. They decided to impose their own fee on Phoenix, essentially as rent on school facilities which the city had been using for years for after-school and recreational programs.

Colley recalls that he and then-city manager Marvin Andrews met several times with school superintendents about the fiscal feud. "I think they simply wanted to find a way to offset the sanitation fee," Colley says. "But Mayor [Margaret] Hance looked at the costs and didn't think it was right to begin paying schools for providing after-school programs."

The number of schools that lost programs was substantial. City records show that Phoenix had after-school programs at more than 120 schools in the 1960s. More were added in the 1970s.

"When I was teaching out at Starlight Park in those days," says Dr. William Sullivan, superintendent of the Cartwright School District in west Phoenix, "the city parks department had a full day Saturday program at numerous schools. They did after-school programs. And they had a full five-day program going in the summer."

All of those programs were pulled by the 1981-82 school year. Through the rest of that decade, Phoenix ran no after-school programs at schools.

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Patti Epler
Contact: Patti Epler
Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.