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Monday, February 4, 2008

Violence sparks idea for youth centers

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— Thirteen-year-old Jajuana Cole. Thirteen-year-old Justus Suggs. Sixteen-year-old Terrance Boyd. Seventeen-year-old Julian Ellis. Eighteen-year-old Tyler Coward.
All shot to death since 2006. In each case where a suspect has been identified, the shooter has been another teen.
While overall crime dropped last year, gun violence continues to plague the city. Last year, gun violence reached the highest level in at least a decade. Suspects in shootings have been getting younger.
Of 25 suspects identified in homicides and nonfatal shootings in 2007, over half were 18 or younger.
The city has released a $9.6 million initiative to establish 10 youth centers in neighborhoods across the city, citing a dearth of safe places for teens to congregate, and a “lack of things to do” as reasons given by a significant number of city teens for negative behavior among their peers.
The plan, dubbed the New Haven Beacon Youth Center Initiative, would rely on $8.4 million from the state, $1 million in private aid and $200,000 from the city.
At this point, the city has only begun to discuss its request, and none of the money has been secured.
“The idea about the Beacon Youth Centers is providing a physical space for the older youth to go in the evenings and on weekends, a safe space to congregate. Not as structured as some of the programs that already exist. What we recognize is the need for young people to have a place just to socialize,” New Haven’s Director of Youth Services Che Dawson said.
This isn’t a new need.
The city was jolted into immediate action following a rash of youth violence in the summer of 2006, which included the shooting deaths of 13-year-olds Cole and Suggs, at the hands of other teens.
Aldermen at the time wrestled with an unpopular proposal for a youth curfew. During hearings for the failed plan, they were confronted by dozens of city teens claiming they have no place beyond the streets to hang out.
Teens lamented the closure of the Dixwell Community “Q” House, which had been a popular youth and community center for 80 years until financial troubles forced its closure in 2003.
The Beacon initiative aims to re-open the place. Dawson envisions youth centers replete with recording studios, weight rooms, computers, and swimming pools, as well as health information to combat teen pregnancy and obesity.
While the city has not yet begun to explore specific partnerships, Dawson suggested youth centers could be located in spaces like the Howe Street YMCA, which already has a swimming pool. The city’s initiative could expand existing facility hours and offerings, he said.
Centers would be located in “10 strategic neighborhoods in the city,” Dawson said, including the lower Dixwell Avenue area, Newhallville, Fair Haven, north and south areas of the Hill, near Quinnipiac Terrace, Dwight/Kensington and West Rock.
While Dawson acknowledged “turf wars do exist,” he said neighborhood rivalry was not a motivating factor for the number and location of the centers. “Historically, New Haven has been a very neighborhood- driven city,” he said.
Elizabeth Benton can be reached at 789-5714 or ebenton@nhregister.com.

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