Foundation stymied in tackling street crime

“My understanding is they’re phasing in the money and the work,’’ said Jorge Martinez of Project RIGHT in Grove Hall. “My understanding is they’re phasing in the money and the work,’’ said Jorge Martinez of Project RIGHT in Grove Hall. (George Rizer/ Globe Staff)
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / July 1, 2009
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The Boston Foundation’s ambitious $26 million proposal to fight crime by focusing on the city’s most dangerous gang members has become mired in early fund-raising problems and growing discontent among community leaders who believe they are being denied a role in the effort.

“We’re not where we wanted to be,’’ Paul S. Grogan, the foundation’s president, acknowledged this week. “We feel we’re on track, but I’m not going to deny that it’s an enormous struggle and we’ve had some disappointments in terms of funding. But we’re putting a lot of energy into it.’’

Announced with great fanfare last December, the foundation’s StreetSafe Boston program was envisioned as a way to fight crime in five of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, primarily along the Blue Hill Avenue corridor, by targeting about 2,000 young criminals who police believe drive more than three quarters of the city’s violence.

The initial goal was to have 13 new street workers in targeted neighborhoods by March, Grogan said, and to provide funding to community service groups by April or May, to offer GED programs, job training, and counseling.

But trouble raising money and the complexity of coordinating with several city agencies delayed deployment of street workers until last week. The poor economy has also forced foundation officials to consider how they might accomplish the initiative’s goals with $20.5 million, instead of the $26 million they had hoped to raise.

At the same time, many leaders of community groups have begun to grumble that they were led astray by the nonprofit organization during six months of meetings to hammer out a budget and strategies for rolling out the plan. They are concerned they will not get any money for the summer, or perhaps at all.

Jorge Martinez, head of Project RIGHT in Grove Hall, said many leaders have not heard from the foundation since the meetings stopped in March.

“Some of the stuff is beyond [the foundation’s] control, according to what we’ve been told about their funding,’’ said Martinez, who sat in on the meetings in Roxbury. “My understanding is they’re phasing in the money and the work. The problem is, that hasn’t been articulated to the members, and the [groups] who participated in a six month process and are now asking . . . ‘Why haven’t we been spoken to or acknowledged in some way for the work we have done?’ ’’

The meetings, which began in early fall, represented a significant time commitment for the organizations, often lasting three hours each week. According to one leader who participated in the meetings, many group directors drafted budgets on their own time to present to the foundation.

Foundation officials insist - and community leaders acknowledge - that the foundation never explicitly promised funding to all the organizations that attended the meetings. It is possible, foundation officials said, that the community groups misinterpreted the reason for the meetings.

“What we were looking to do was fund certain strategies that we were very clear were going to make up StreetSafe, not . . . fund their organizations,’’ said Robert Lewis, the foundation’s vice president for program. “There was a perception that we were going to be giving money to everybody. And we weren’t saying that.’’

Some groups -including the Boston TenPoint Coalition, which is running the foundation’s street worker program - have received funding under StreetSafe. The street workers will augment the city’s own outreach workers, but keep later hours and, unlike city employees, will not be disqualified because of criminal records. Foundation officials also said they made $500,000 in grants this summer to community organizations for activities like dance and athletics.

Lewis said some of the organizations that showed up at the meetings do not work with the people the foundation wants to help or advocated for programs that had nothing to do with StreetSafe’s goals. “Somebody recommended $50,000 to do laser tag,’’ Lewis said.

But many neighborhood leaders - most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the foundation’s broad reach within the community - said it was natural to expect funding after investing so much time in the planning process.

“Folks had a valid assumption there was going to be some funds,’’ one leader said.

Another - Chris Troy, head of the Boston Urban Youth Foundation in Roxbury - said cooperation with the groups already working in the neighborhoods is critical to the Boston Foundation’s success.

“I do think they could have communicated better overall, and part of that communication has to address how they’re going to partner with’’ community organizations, Troy said. “It’s unclear, given the communication, how their strategies are going to address the issue of truancy, dropouts, and job training.’’

The goal of the initiative, dubbed StreetSafe Boston, is to identify and work with the 16- to 24-year-olds who are considered so-called impact players. StreetSafe’s goals are to fund a five-year program that would eventually hire 25 street workers, who are charged with forming relationships with gang members, former offenders, and others actively involved in crime. Through the program, they would have access to jobs, counseling, family support, and education opportunities, which foundation officials say would keep them off the street.

Some leaders have questioned whether the program’s scope is too narrow and should also focus on youth who are homeless, addicted to drugs, or victims of abuse.

But Grogan said that for each gang leader they reach, there could be a ripple effect on the two dozen teenagers who follow them. “This is a very carefully crafted, tightly focused attempt to intervene with a small population that is causing an enormous amount of mayhem,’’ he said. “If it works, the leverage is going to be fantastic.’’

So far, the foundation has raised $8.8 million, he said, a sign of the program’s strength when other cities have been forced to cut street worker programs.

“Would I like to have $15 million in hand instead of 9, yes,’’ Grogan said. “Given how bad it is, to put together the money we have, I’m actually encouraged.’’