Net Loss

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Patricia Buckmaster, a community organizer with the Murphy Cougar Neighborhood Association, says that another problem early on was the scarcity of political officials willing to "come down and take a look at what was happening out here. You had to be blind not to see it."

Eventually, community activism and the criminal realities the police were encountering every day did get the attention of officials at City Hall. In 1985, the city Parks Department had created a mobile recreation unit, called City Streets, to bring some recreational programming to underserved areas. The city expanded that into the department's at-risk youth division in 1993. That same year, the city Parks Department began to reestablish after-school programs. More than $7 million has gone into 76 school and 14 other sites near schools since then. This year the city council approved another $2.4 million to add about 90 more schools to the roster over the next three years. An additional $11.3 million in city funds has gone into programs sponsored by the at-risk youth division.

In 1991, the police department, with funding from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, created the anti-gang GREAT program (Gang Resistance Education and Training) for seventh graders. The program was to provide follow-up to the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which targets fifth and sixth graders. GREAT and DARE have poured millions of dollars into anti-drug, anti-gang classes in this decade. Another estimated $9 million has gone into Block Watches, Fight Back and Weed and Seed Programs. And city departments as varied as Equal Opportunity, Neighborhood Services and Housing have poured millions more into efforts to reclaim neighborhoods.

Private agencies have also experienced similar expansions. YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs have worked to develop partnerships with schools to fill gaps in children's programming. The Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix have established satellite programs at schools in areas with little access to programs. And private nonprofit organizations such as the Carl Hayden Community Youth Center, at 23rd Avenue and Van Buren, and the Phoenix Youth at Risk Foundation, in the Garfield neighborhood, have established programs to bring kids in off the street.

But in neighborhoods where gangs are entrenched and juvenile crime remains a significant problem, the cure still lags far behind the causes. City officials say they have more requests from schools for after-hours programs than the city has filled. And even where public and private programs exist, some current and former public officials say they aren't reaching the kids with the greatest needs.

"What happens over a certain period of time," says retired Phoenix police chief Dennis Garrett, "is groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and different church organizations fall into a niche and start to think, this is out of our area. Whether through lack of funding or contentment with what they're doing, they don't go beyond that. And there's always a new group of kids developing beyond what those programs serve."

This summer, New Times surveyed programs in the Valley's 10 neighborhoods with the highest rate of juvenile crime, which officials say reflects the toughest gang neighborhoods. The survey found a sprawling patchwork of programs lacking no clear focus, direction or long-term vision or priorities.

Too many of the programs lack continuous funding. Too few have been evaluated for long-term effectiveness. And most are cobbled together with an unreliable variety of federal, state and local public and private sources.

Some areas have no parks, libraries or public swimming pools within easy walking distance. Many have no practical access to Little Leagues, YMCAs or Boys and Girls Clubs. The Valley YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs have sought to change that in recent years by taking their programs to where children are. But the effort is hampered by lack of funds.

Boys and Girls Clubs "touch 15,000 kids here," says Rick Miller, former director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Phoenix.

Still, he says, "We ought to be asking how many kids don't get served by B&G Clubs, YMCAs, Little League teams. I think a lot more kids are not being served than are."

And even when there are programs, many kids can't -- or won't -- go to them.

Manuel Avitia, who has two young children and lives near 24th Avenue and Maricopa Street in Phoenix, says there are too few parks and too many gang members frequenting the parks that are near his house.

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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.