Agencies Unite to Curb Black-on-Black Violence

Mark Curnutte, Cincinnati Enquirer, June 14, 2010

Some of Cincinnati’s 10,000 nonprofit agencies and the United Way are getting serious now about quelling the urban violence that is killing and wounding the city’s young black men.

The issue attracted serious attention in March when eight African-American men were gunned down during a 10-day stretch.

Those shootings prompted city leaders and others to renew calls for new programs to reduce the bloodshed. Ironically, those calls came while one of the few groups that help shooting victims–Out of the Crossfire–scrambled to find $60,000 so it could stay in business.

An Enquirer examination of area social-service agencies shows that only within the past year have they started to cooperate and expand programs for young urban blacks, the biggest group being shot to death and doing the shooting on Cincinnati’s streets.

Of the city’s 86 homicides since the beginning of 2009, 59–or nearly seven out of 10–were African-American men and 41 of them were in their teen or 20s.

Many reasons contributed to the lack of activity and cooperation among agencies in the past:

Some managers say their agencies must combat the attitude that black-on-black violence is not society’s problem in general, but isolated in the inner city.

Nonprofits are wary of working with young urban black men in neighborhoods with a lot of poverty and other social problems.

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Lack of jobs problem

Dr. Victor Garcia, chief trauma surgeon at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and a United Way board member, has assembled a national group of experts and 70 local leaders–including business people–to promote a long-term plan to reduce gun violence. The biggest problem is the lack of jobs, made worse by high unemployment and layoffs.

Don’t underestimate the effect of the recession on the violence, experts say. In early 2007, about 90 percent of ex-offenders found work after completing programs run by the Talbert House. Today, it’s about 50 percent.

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Christopher Smitherman, president of the Cincinnati NAACP chapter, said unemployment among black men in Cincinnati is at “Depression-era” levels.

He’s right. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 34.5 percent of black men ages 16-24 are jobless. The rate for black men 20 and older is 17 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Those numbers translate into little choice for young black men except the drug trade.

Smitherman said the focus of his NAACP presidency is minority hiring on public construction projects, such as Cincinnati Public Schools buildings and the Banks riverfront development. Though many young black men do not have enough skills, many do, Smitherman said.

“The first false stereotype is that African-American men and women don’t want to work,” he said.

Layers of challenges

The multiple social problems that afflict black men and women living in poor neighborhoods can’t be ignored, said Neil Tilow, the president of Talbert House, a social service agency whose program include running treatment and ex-offender release programs for Hamilton County.

Behavioral issues–including untreated mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse–are rampant. Then, there is an exaggerated sense of entitlement and victimization. That makes it a challenge from a social service agency perspective because employees are afraid to work with black men who have felony convictions.

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In 2009, 292 “violent gunshot wound” victims arrived at University’s emergency room.

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In the past two years, nonprofit Cincinnati Works–which received $155,000 from United Way–placed 80 convicted felons in jobs. About two-thirds of them remain employed.

Recommendations for placement come from street advocates who work for the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV), a program that gets $838,000 from the city.

“The person has to convince us they want to go to work,” said Cincinnati Works President Dave Phillips, who insists help is available for anyone who really wants a job.

“First of all, that’s been the cry since Day 1–no one cares. That’s BS.” Phillips said. “We are a society that says, ‘Raise your hand if you want to work and are willing to do what it takes, and we will help you.’ But this population has never done it. They’d rather grab a gun, shoot somebody and rob other dope boys.”

Cincinnati Works has a retention rate of 80 percent for the 600 to 700 people it places in jobs each year.

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More money coming

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United Way executives said the programs their agency gives money to–preparing children for kindergarten success ($10 million), achievement in school and life for youth ($8.3 million) and financially stabilizing poor families ($8 million)–also help black men and other people in poor, high-crime neighborhoods.

United Way, which dishes out more than $50 million annually of the region’s charitable contributions, also funneled $135,000 to three agencies for the first time in 2010 aimed at keeping students in school and helping them stay in college.

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Light in darkness

One bright light in the urban violence is the CIRV program, started in Cincinnati in 2007 and based on the model first employed in Boston in which street outreach workers–all of them ex-cons–develop relationships with men involved in the drug trade and point them toward opportunities for productive lives.

CIRV members are highly visible and show support for victims’ families by attending funerals and participating in anti-violence marches.

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