City discusses youth service reform

Members of the Youth Services Committee met with community leaders and other government officials Wednesday to discuss ways to keep New Haven’s youth active and safe.

As planned, the committee discussed a New Haven Youth Council retreat, but the focus widened to include strengthening the city’s youth council and new collaborations with community organizations to create job-training programs. In addition, committee members talked about the Street Outreach Worker program, in which local groups collaborate with the New Haven Police Department to target struggling youth.

Toward the end of the meeting, Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah voiced his discontent with the city’s efforts to help young people over the past decade.

“We spent a lot of money [on youth services],” he said. “A lot of money. And we don’t have nothing to show for it.”

Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark, the committee chair, said the proposals up for discussion were unprecedented in New Haven’s history. While she estimated that 90 percent of youth in New Haven are doing well, the other 10 percent have historically been overlooked. Clark said the proposals — including the Street Outreach Worker program, which she finds particularly impressive — target the 10 percent of city youth described as being “at-risk.”

“We’re breaking new ground here,” she said.

The Street Outreach Worker program, which is in its beginning stages, aims to enlist community groups to partner with two NHPD officers to approach troubled youth on the streets and talk to them about youth programs and alternatives to violence. Interested groups must apply to the program by mid-April, said Kica Matos, the city’s community services administrator. The groups can also apply to receive more city money to expand their youth services, she said.

In addition, attendees said they wanted to create more job opportunities for teens and give them job training. Community activist Maurice Peters said he thought an integral part of this training is instilling a respect for work, which he thinks is very important if the city hopes to reach struggling youth.

“We live in these streets,” he said. “We know what they need. They see their parents struggling. They don’t see any hope … they have to learn to respect Mom breaking her back.”

Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez described a time years ago when many new and young employees at Shaw’s supermarket failed to turn up for work because it was a holiday, even though they had work that day. He called the incident indicative of the comprehensive job training that some youth need.

“This is a population that has historically had a hard time following rules, or at least adjusting to rules,” he said.

Another important point of discussion was the city’s Youth Council, which Clark described as severely understaffed. At present, she said, only 12 people are on the council, while the committee would like to have 30. In addition, Ward 19 Alderwoman Alfreda Edwards said, most of those 12 are high school seniors who will leave their posts after just a year. The committee would like to recruit more freshmen who will stay with the Council until the end of high school, she said.

Che Dawson, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, said it is crucial that members of the council be taken seriously by city government.

“We have to make sure people respect their leadership — not just use them when it looks good to be around kids, but really consult them,” he said.

Shah said the aldermanic committee needs to be more aggressive in tracking the progress of the agencies it works with and the services it initiates. He also said the government needs to make sure it is giving young people guidance.

“They want guidance,” he said. “At the end of the day, when the water boils down to the bottom of the pot, they want guidance.”

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