Fighting gang violence gets harder in recession

Carlos Bryant drives the city streets in a beat-up blue Buick sedan, looking for kids who are like he used to be: dangerous and misguided.

Carlos Bryant

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Carlos Bryant drives the city streets in a beat-up blue Buick sedan, looking for kids who are like he used to be: dangerous and misguided.

He sees an 18-year-old he knows — a “shooter,” Bryant calls him, the term for someone known for having fired on rival gangs. The teenager hails him from down the street. Bryant fishes out a flyer for an iron worker apprenticeship and hands it to him.

“He doesn’t have anything to do. He’s very smart but very dangerous,” says Bryant, a so-called street worker with the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, a nonprofit peace and mediation group in Providence.

Police, public school administrators and others credit the group with having helped curb gang retaliations and shootings in this city of roughly 172,500. But they fear budget woes and layoffs — cutting four of 13 street workers — will reverse the gains they’ve made in stemming violence.

“They’re doing all they can do, but if something doesn’t happen really quickly, I’m scared,” said Anthony Hubbard, director of YouthBuild Providence, a school and construction training program that often accepts kids referred by street workers.

The institute gets most of its US$1.3 million budget from foundations, donations and occasional government grants. But lately it has seen private donations shrink and now is facing a $300,000 budget shortfall. At the same time, the demand has gone up for services, which also include counselling for people whose loved ones were killed and support for kids being released from juvenile detention.

“Everyone is sending an apology,” said Teny Gross, the institute’s executive director. “It feels a lot more desperate. There are VIPs of banks and investment places that used to donate to you that are now themselves out of a job.” And that means even fewer jobs to offer kids with a history of gang connections.

Already, street feuds have been escalating, creating more work for the remaining street workers.

Providence Police Detective Sgt. Michael Wheeler, head of the five-member gang unit, credits the street workers with helping reduce retaliations.

“I think it definitely make a difference with what happens with the kids on the street, in a positive way,” Wheeler said. “I respect the fact that these are people who are from the neighbourhoods and trying to work with the kids and trying to settle disputes before they get where they’re at.”

In January, a 17-year-old riding a public bus was stabbed in the stomach by rival gang members. In mid-February, two 19-year-old men were shot as they sat in their car at the drive-thru of a fast-food restaurant. In March, a 17-year-old was fatally shot at a backyard party. Days later, a 17-year-old from a rival gang was shot, allegedly in retaliation.

It’s been so bad that Gross brought in counsellors for his own staff to help them deal with the stress and avoid burnout.

Bryant, 45, has seen both sides of street violence. When he was younger, he would spend his days high on beer and gin. He spent 18 months in jail for in the early 1990s — a time during which his brother was killed. But instead of seeking vengeance, a friend helped him get clean, and get a job.

He’s spent the past seven years — on call 24 hours a day — trying to do the same for others. “There’s only a few of us right now,” Bryant said, “and a lot of work to be done.”

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