City youth face uphill battle

wellbeing
Photo by Yale Daily News.

Every Saturday, a group of New Haven parents and their children arrives at an old church at 111 Whalley Ave. There, they are greeted by members of PALS, a Yale student-run tutoring service for New Haven elementary school children. Over the course of the day, young students — “tiny and adorable” and often quite enthusiastic, Yumiko Nakamura ’15 said — participate in writing activities, math tutoring and even games of UNO.

While PALS students are tucked away in a comfortable church surrounded by Ivy League mentors, their neighbors wake up to a vastly different New Haven, one of youth violence and structural poverty.

On Jan. 18, DataHaven released the results of the largest community well-being survey of its kind for New Haven and its surrounding suburbs, conducted in fall 2012 by DataHaven and other city philanthropic organizations. The survey, which addressed city issues including community satisfaction, employment, education and health, uncovered unsettling statistics about New Haven youth. In some areas, the situation looked grim: Few New Haven residents consider the city a good place to raise children. But some bright spots in the survey results, such as a high rate of city volunteerism, point to the city’s potential for growth and better youth support.

YOUTH CHALLENGES

The survey found significant geographic stratification in how New Haven residents view the city as an environment to raise children. Within the inner city, 31 percent of survey respondents said that New Haven was not a good environment to raise children. By contrast, only 3 percent of people in the outer ring of suburbs, which includes towns such as North Haven, Woodbridge and Orange, said their area was a poor environment for raising children.

Elijah Anderson, a sociology professor at Yale and the author of “Code of the Street,” said that many of the issues plaguing New Haven residents are tied to ripples in the job market across the country: The national workforce has been transitioning from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, and many jobs that were once located at the heart of the city are being outsourced abroad. The resulting unemployment has far-reaching consequences for city culture, Anderson said, as individuals without meaningful work more often turn to crime.

“The violence and the crime is to an extent a function of structural poverty. The poverty is caused by the absence of jobs, of course,” Anderson said. “Indirectly, good people go wrong when they have nothing to eat and nothing to look forward to. And then they can make life difficult for those around them.“

Youth violence has become a particular problem for New Haven, Ward 10 Alderman and mayoral candidate Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 said, because there are too few programs to occupy children and teens during after-school hours. Elicker said that existing programming, including activities run through Yale, cannot accommodate the sheer number of students who require its services. Ward 1 Alderman Sarah Eidelson ’12, who sits on the Board of Aldermen’s Youth Committee, said that creating more youth jobs — one of her main goals on the board so far — will go a long way in keeping kids off the streets.

“What I have heard most frequently in my conversations with young people in the city include a lack of opportunity in general for youth,” Eidelson said. “There are a lot of fantastic programs in the city addressing these things already, but they’re so stretched — we need more of them, and we need them in more neighborhoods.”

Elicker added that the city does a poor job of coordinating its ongoing youth services initiatives. The Board of Aldermen has a youth services committee, and the mayor created a “youth commission” and a separate “youth violence task force.”

“There are a lot of qualified experts, but they’re not talking to each other,” Elicker said.

The survey found that one of the most striking differences between the city and the suburbs lay in parents’ perceptions of their children’s role models: 76 percent of parents in outer-ring suburbs said that their children had enough positive role models, while 26 percent of New Haven residents said the same.

Anderson considered why New Haven children have so few role models. He said that, one of the most “peculiar” aspects of New Haven’s demographics was its conspicuous lack of a black middle class — African-American doctors, lawyers and businessmen. He added that as more black professionals trickle into other cities, they raise the specter of opportunity for those cities’ youth.

“When a black person walks down the street in New Haven, you can make the assumption that he’s from the ghetto and he’s poor,” said Anderson, the sociology professor. “That has a profound effect on the perception of black people in the city — but it also makes a difference in what black people aspire to.”

CITY POTENTIAL

Despite these hurdles, New Haven has gained some momentum toward finding solutions. One of the most promising statistics the community well-being survey displayed was the rate of volunteerism across New Haven, which is estimated to be about 58 percent. Many volunteering programs across the city attempt to address the range of education and mental health issues within the Elm City community.

Boost!, a New Haven public school program that works to partner nonprofits in the community with New Haven’s schools, found an outpouring of community support when it began. Boost! Director Beth Pellegrino said that when the program was launched, there were about 75 requests for information from community organizations.

One successful Boost! initiative is a partnership with the Foundation for the Arts and Trauma, which provides preventative mental health services in two high schools and seven elementary schools in the district. The foundation runs short, stress-relieving play sessions for elementary school students. For high schoolers, there is a class that teaches students to relate social and historical issues to their own experiences, as well as counseling services designed to give students a chance to relieve personal stress and return to class focused on academics.

Even kindergartners are in need of mental health relief, according to David Johnson, the co-director of the post-traumatic stress center in New Haven. He said that a needs assessment conducted at Strong Elementary School last fall found that approximately a third of the students showed signs of behavioral problems, while many of these students were doing well in school and exhibited no signs of psychiatric illness. Because they are exhibiting high levels of stress at an early age “these are the kids who, come later grades, are going to break down,” Johnson said.

Such youth stress is why Boost! and the Foundation for the Arts and Trauma have settled on a preventative strategy for mental health.

“After [mental] damage has been done, it takes a lot of effort to put things back together again,” Johnson said, but working in schools is a tactic to “put some effort up front.”

The results seem to be working. At Barnard Environmental Studies School, the number of disciplinary referrals dropped from 750 when the program began two years ago to 70 so far this year. At Metropolitan Business Academy, the number of referrals has dropped from approximately 13 or 14 a month to two or three a month.

New Haven youth also have the advantage of Yale volunteer outreach efforts like PALS and other programs run by Dwight Hall. Jangai Jap ’14, a coordinator for PALS, said that Yale students can always interact more with the New Haven community.

The survey found that 81 percent of Greater New Haven residents are satisfied with the city or area where they live.

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