There wasn’t enough space in the City Council Chambers Tuesday night nor enough time on the clock to accommodate all of the people who had packed the Hall to participate in a meeting looking for solutions to street violence – a meeting that was spurred by the murder of a 19-year-old Chelsea youth allegedly by a 16-year-old Chelsea youth, as well as the injury by gunshot of six other teens during the 3 a.m. party at a vacant apartment on March 6.
More than 100 people turned out to listen to City officials and non-profit providers, but more importantly, to make comments to City leaders and ask questions. It was one of the first meetings in which youth attended in large numbers and suggested solutions to the violence that plagues their age bracket the most.
“My eyes, all of our eyes, were opened with the shooting,” said Kimberly (last names of youth were not given publicly at the meeting to encourage input), a Chelsea High student. “The six injured opened our eyes too, but really there were a lot more injured than that in Chelsea. The youth here; we’re good kids. We follow bad footsteps. Sometimes our parents are not good parents. Chelsea is a good place to live. My parents trust me being out on the streets, which given what’s happening is not good. Chelsea is a good community, but we need to make it so much better.”
A young man named Samir suggested giving the young people other options rather than jail when they start committing the smaller crimes, crimes that everyone agreed often lead to horrific incidents like the March 6 shooting.
“Instead of jail, can we give them a chance to take another form of rehabilitation so they could get rehabilitation therapy?” he asked. “I think we should give them an incentive to show up, some kind of stipend – pay them for coming. I think we should give them a little stipend to keep them interested and continuing to better themselves. People might say this is crazy and way too expensive, but one murder investigation costs $400,000 to perform. You give a kid $300 in order to prevent him from committing a murder and you’ve just saved $399,700 and a life.”
His comments were followed by loud applause, and a response from Jason Owens, a street worker with Roca. He said a form of that program is already happening at Roca. One serious problem, though, is that his programs don’t reach down to where the problem now exists – with young kids who are 13 and 14. He said the alleged shooter of Pablo Villeda was actually on his radar.
“We work with at-risk kids who are 18 to 24 and we’re good at that,” he said. “There are kids though I can’t get services to because they are too young. The young man (who is accused of murder) was on my radar, but I couldn’t help him and provide services to him because he was too young. I engaged him on the street, but I couldn’t bring him into Roca. For the older kids; we have jobs. I have 34 slots open and only eight kids willing to work. I have to drag them out of bed…The age of young people going off track has gotten younger and younger. We need to pay attention to the fifth graders and sixth graders. It starts there and even earlier sometimes.”
He announced that they are expanding 50 slots at Roca to be able to help kids as young as 15, and they will also have another 15 slots available for any student at Chelsea High – no matter what age.
Another youth, James, said he wanted to see more classes of interest to him at Chelsea High. His comment elicited laughs from the audience and some concerned looks from his teachers, but when he elaborated, it was a point well taken.
“I am scared, really,” he said. “Because I’m 18 and I don’t know how to do my taxes, buy a house or balance a checkbook. I think the schools should teach us to do that. I hear people also saying we are on our own and that’s true. I’m an athlete and we go to these other schools and see their gyms open and kids playing in the gyms all the time. Maybe if you opened the gym, we could go there and not be out on our own.”
Meeting Coordinator Gladys Vega, of the Chelsea Collaborative, and Meeting Coordinator Dan Cortez, of the Chelsea Police, as well as City Manager Tom Ambrosino, all agreed that investing in young people is paramount right now.
“We need to create an agenda to provide alternative recreation and activities,” said Vega. “For many, many years, what we have done for the youth in the city has not lived up to the promise.”
At the same time, she and Council President Dan Cortell and Police Chief Brian Kyes stressed that people need to call the police – to get rid of the “snitch” culture. Many were troubled at the meeting by the fact that the loud party had been going on for hours and no one ever called the police.
“What has really gotten at me is that neighbors did not call police – that’s a question at the top of my list for this whole thing,” Cortell said. “Had there been a phone call made, there could have been a life saved and six others not injured. What made people afraid to call the police? That’s a serious question the city needs to think about.”
Chief Kyes also indicated that there has to be some questions of why kids were out that late without their parents’ knowledge.
“I hate to be the wet blanket here, but kids that are 15, 16, and 17 years old, on a weekend or weeknight, you have to know what your kids are doing at 3 a.m.,” he said. “And not just out, but out drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. To be out at 3 a.m. is dangerous.”
Suyapa Gonzalez, of Orange Street, said too many parents are working too hard – and popular culture, which is violent, is raising them.
“There is nothing more dangerous than a kid with nothing to do and a parent with way too much to do,” she said in Spanish. “We have too many parents with no authority over their kids and the kids are looking for that authority. What’s happening with families in Chelsea? We have parents working 100 hours a week to pay their bills and the rent…Who is educating these children when no one is at home – the television and the Internet…We can’t continue to have our kids educating themselves.”
In the end, Chelsea Housing Authority Director Al Ewing said there are no bad kids, but kids that need something to do.
“Sometimes good kids make bad decisions because they don’t have options,” he said. “It’s up to us to begin providing those options.”