North Minneapolis needs a drop-in center

Many would agree that Minneapolis’ No. 1 problem is crime but proposed solutions differ. The Star Tribune wants police to pay more attention to “livability crimes” under the “broken-window theory”, that such crimes escalate into more serious activities. Council Member Don Samuels wants to close down convenience stores and apartment buildings which he believes inspire crime, along with poorly maintained properties. The mayor cites the city’s recent move to hire additional police officers, suggesting that this will lower the crime rate.

A counterpoint feature in today’s Star Tribune by John Stuart, a state public defender, provides two pieces of information which ought to introduce greater reality into the discussion. First, he points out that the courts in Hennepin County dismiss 25,000 misdemeanor charges a year for lack of evidence. Second, the new jail, built five years ago, is full. The two facts together suggest that additional officers and additional arrests for criminal activity may have little or no impact upon the level of crime unless the perpetrators are prosecuted and given meaningful sentences. Punishing buildings for crime is such a foolish idea that only a Harvard professor and Star Tribune editorial writer could possibly believe it.

So what would work? Let’s start with a personal revelation which the new police chief, Tim Dolan, gave in an interview with the Camden Community News. Dolan disclosed the fact that, as a young man growing up in north Minneapolis,he had engaged in some borderline criminal activities (such as setting fire to mail boxes) and, but for the helpful guidance of adults, might have become a criminal himself.

The article states: “Coaches, his dad included, played a big influence on him. And there were many people at after-school programs and drop-in centers (in the 1970s) to keep kids out of trouble. He truly appreciated all those mentors and programs and says, ‘Today so many youth programs come and go, so it’s hard to keep a stable community environment for kids.”

Since reading that statement, I have tried to find out what youth programs exist today in Minneapolis and judge their effectiveness in reducing juvenile crime. Clearly, crime is due to individuals headed in a wrong direction. We have so many kids born and raised in broken homes, with inadequate schooling and parental guidance. When they reach a certain age, they become a potentially dangerous surplus population, unwanted by the community. Many find companionship in gangs. Unless the law-abiding adult community finds ways of engaging these people in constructive ways, many will succumb to a lifestyle that includes violent crime.

Metro Property Rights Action Committee, a landlord group to which I belong, held its first meeting last Wednesday at the Martin Luther King Neighborhood Center at 40th and Lyndale in south Minneapolis. Our principal guest speaker was Spike Moss, a long-time community activist in crime-ridden neighborhoods. We wanted his opinion about violent crime in north Minneapolis. What was the best way to address this problem?

Moss began by saying that, when he was a young man growing up in Minneapolis, young people had many things to do and many places to hang out. There were soda fountains, movie theaters, and other commercial establishments. He himself was in a number of sports teams sponsored by businesses. But now most of those activities are gone. Today’s young people are left to fend for themselves.

Three decades ago, Moss was the director of a drop-in center in north Minneapolis called the Way. United Way decided to defund it in the mid 1980s. Other foundations followed suit in deemphasizing recreational programs. There is much less available today for kids heading in the right direction.

I asked Moss what needed to be done. The biggest need, he said, was to have a drop-in center for young people in north Minneapolis. It would be nice to have one in south Minneapolis, too. How much would this cost? Moss estimated that annual operating costs for a drop-in center (exclusive of building acquisition) might be $200,000. What would this center do? Its staff people would engage young men and women from off the street in various ways. There might be video games or a recording studio. There might be sports activities. There might be career counseling. The important thing is to engage potential clients on their terms - find what interests them - and provide a community context for this.

Moss also estimated that each nonfatal shooting in Minneapolis costs the taxpayer in excess of one million dollars when you count the cost of emergency response and treatment, the cost of surgery, physical therapy, and arrest and prosecution of the perpetrator. For this kind of money, you could have five drop-in centers, according to Moss’ estimate. I, being financially more conservative, would suggest that you could have two to three fully staffed drop-in centers - for each shooting!

Why is not Minneapolis city government jumping at such an opportunity to cut costs? Where are our foundations on this one? Where are the neighborhood groups, or NRP, or the block clubs, or the Star Tribune editorial board, or Hennepin County, or the state of Minnesota? They all seem to be out to lunch.

Is Spike Moss too controversial a figure? Are his methods unproven? Is the NIMBY syndrome killing such an approach? Or does this community really care?

One should keep in mind that the one million dollars spent on each shooting does not go down a rat hole but instead goes into wages and salaries for ambulance drivers, hospital doctors and nurses, police, criminal-justice and corrections officials. I would not cynically suggest that anyone wants a high rate of violent crime in Minneapolis but there are plenty of people who benefit financially from the high-priced status quo.

This should be a no-brainer. Let’s bring back the drop-in centers and let’s recruit persons like Spike Moss, with credibility on the street, to organize and run them. If our police force is understaffed, our courts are clogged, and there is inadequate jail space, then crime prevention is truly the cost-effective alternative.

As it is, the system is incompetent with respect to dealing with young people who are susceptible to crime. Let’s try something else - even something that resembles what was done thirty or forty years ago. We need to talk less about crime and provide more crime-preventing services.

Could not the city, county, and private foundations come up with one or two million dollars a year and put Spike Moss in charge of spending this money on drop-in centers to serve the city’s underserved young people? That’s where I would start in addressing Minneapolis’ problem of violent crime.

(a proposal submitted to the Minneapolis e-democracy forum on January 27, 2007)

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