On Monday, July 17, John Canda hadn't even finished settling into his new office—the mayor recently appointed him as head of the city's new Office of Youth Violence Prevention—before he started tackling his first major challenge: to untangle and coordinate Portland's disparate gang-prevention efforts.
As it stands now, there are several different gang-prevention tactics in use all over Portland, led by the city, the county, the cops, and community activists.
Some of these, like the NE Portland Youth Gangs Outreach Program—where Canda used to work—support kids who are prone to gang involvement by being a constant presence in their lives. Gang-prevention advocates attend school events, concerts, and festivals, to build trust with young people vulnerable to gang involvement. They also intervene to stop brewing violence, and provide case management and counseling where needed.
Multnomah County used to run a similar, broad outreach program, the Gang Resource Intervention Team (GRIT). But the county just scrapped it in favor of a new, million-dollar program to focus solely on intensive case management.
The problem is, some long-time gang-prevention advocates say, the county's approach is disconnected from other gang-prevention efforts and is in danger of reinventing the wheel. Canda, meanwhile, is keen for groups to coordinate their efforts.
"Many of the people in this field know who their respective counterparts are in different offices. But since I've been doing this, we have tended pretty much to work within our own organizations," Canda says. "The best case scenario will be to get people around the table on a regular basis, so the left hand knows what the right hand is doing."
Police Chief Rosie Sizer agrees with Canda. "At the moment, we have the city-funded approach and county-funded approaches in silos, and then we have our own operation," she says. "I think it's good to better connect the enforcement and community-outreach approaches."
Those who support an outreach approach include Leslie Esinga, community builder for the Housing Authority of Portland, who feels one of the biggest problems for neighborhood youth is having nothing to do. She says those lingering on street corners, yet to be recruited by gangs, are best targeted early by outreach—before the gangs get to them.
"I see that there's a rapport between young people and the outreach workers, and sometimes those more casual relationships make the difference that may move a child in a certain direction," Esinga told community members at last week's meeting of the NE Gang Violence Task Force. "I'd like to see more money allocated to that kind of work."
However, at the same meeting last week, Regina Warren—from the Multnomah County Department of School and Community Partnerships—explained the county's new $1 million gang-prevention initiative. On July 1, the county tapped five youth agencies to work with kids already tangled up in gang activity. Counselors for groups such as the Native American Youth Association will each aim to target 40 youths a year—like those who have already received formal warnings from the juvenile courts about gang-related behavior.
"We are still developing the criteria which will decide how we'll take a young person into the system—but we can't serve everybody," Warren said, adding: "What we have decided is that touching young people here and there is not how we want to invest in our outreach."
But the county's approach is in danger of ignoring the lessons learned by those who have worked on the gang-prevention front line for decades. "Every time there is new money, they try to create a new concept instead of sticking with one program," Charles Ford, a citizen of NE Portland who has been combating gang problems in the area since the late 1980s, said in response to the county's presentation. "What have we gained?"
Outreach workers and activists are quick to point out that they have done more than merely "touch people here and there" over the years, as the county is implying. They've worked with vulnerable young people who have yet to cross the line into gang involvement, as well as those already involved.
Tania Dickens, program manager of the NE Portland Youth Gangs Outreach Program, is convinced that the program's relationship-based approach has stopped drive-bys, homicides, and assaults in the area, and feels the county's new approach could send the wrong message to groups like hers.
"Perception is everything, and some people may look at this in a way that says they [Multnomah County] don't want what we've been doing, and that's unfortunate," she says.
Canda will be spending the first weeks in his new role building relationships with the folks at city hall, but once he's shaken a few hands, it's clear his leadership is needed to bring together Portland's disparate gang-prevention efforts. As Dickens observes: "In the meantime our young people are going to be the ones suffering in our community."