Has Boston become complacent about gun violence?

IT WAS BARELY 24 hours after a 14-year-old boy was gunned down at midday on a Roxbury street that the Boston City Council’s public safety committee convened a scheduled hearing Tuesday afternoon on two grants the city is slated to receive. The hearings are largely a formality – the council has to officially “accept and expend” funding the city receives for various initiatives. But as the grant for $3.4 million in state funding for the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative was presented yesterday, it provided an opportunity for councilors to probe city officials about the issue.

The SSYI program, launched by the state in 2011, focuses on young people who have been identified as “proven risks” to be involved as perpetrators or victims of gun violence. The program funds local nonprofits, such as Inner City Weightlifting and Mission Safe, to work with young people, and it assigns case managers to help up to 135 young people each year with everything from education and employment to behavioral health issues. 

The Boston SSYI program focuses on young people aged 17 to 24. Against the backdrop of Monday’s killing of a 14-year-old shortly after 12 noon, City Councilor Michael Flaherty, the chair of the committee, raised the issue of lowering the age of young people the program works with to 14 or 15. 

Roy Martin, director of the city’s SSYI effort, told the committee that Monday’s homicide was “heartbreaking,” but that the program is currently constrained by its age focus on older “proven” risk individuals. 

The city has experienced a spate of incidents involving young people and guns in recent months. In late June, Boston police arrested a 17-year-old with a gun in Dorchester and, in a separate incident the same night, arrested another minor with a gun. On a night in early July, police arrested three teens – aged 19, 18, and 16 – in Roxbury on gun possession charges. Later the same month, police arrested a 16-year-old on gun charges and seized eight dirt bikes in Mattapan. Last week, a 17-year-old student at Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester was arrested following the shooting of an 18-year-old outside the school. 

While concern is rising about gun violence among younger teens, Boston has continued to buck a national trend of rising homicide rates. Last year, Boston had 40 homicides, down from 56 in 2020. There had been 35 homicides at this point last year. To date, Boston has seen 28 homicides this year. 

Emmett Folgert, who spent decades mentoring young people and helping to keep the peace on city streets as director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, said Boston should not be complacent about youth violence. He pointed to the vibrant network of efforts put in place in the 1990s, known as the “Boston Miracle,” that led to a steep drop in gun violence. 

“What are we waiting for to implement the strategies that accomplished the Boston Miracle,” he said. “Let’s go back to what worked.” 

Lots of that infrastructure has withered away. Martin was asked at Tuesday’s hearing whether he thinks the SSYI program has played a role in preventing violence. “I think we’re one of the only constants in the city,” he said, ticking off a list of other efforts, including the city’s own street worker outreach program, that have been shuttered over the last decade. 

Having programs and activities to engage young people, and connecting them with adult mentors, are all key, Martin said. “For the most part, busy people stay out of trouble,” Martin told the council committee. 

Michael Kozu, co-director of Project RIGHT, a Grove Hall community group focused on stemming violence in the neighborhood that straddles the Roxbury-Dorchester line, thinks the proliferation of guns among younger teens is part of the ongoing fallout of the isolation from the pandemic. “There was pretty much a disconnect, with a lot of these younger teenagers not having connections with schools or programs or anything positive,” he said. “So as a result you have these young teenagers creating their own energy, and if it’s not guided it becomes negative,” he said, pointing in particular to the toxic effects of social media. 

One piece of good news in the quest to provide more “guided” activities for young people: Project RIGHT’s years of effort to get a youth center located in Grove Hall are finally bearing fruit. On Thursday, city officials will announce plans for such a facility, which Project RIGHT has been pushing for since the late 1990s. Kozu said the recent incidents of gun violence involving teenagers only underscore the importance of the effort. “That’s why this community center is so important,” he said. “It will create activities and things to draw them in.” 

MICHAEL JONAS

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