UP CLOSE | Fighting New Haven crime with social welfare

When Dean Esserman took the helm of the New Haven Police Department in November 2011, his marching orders were clear: reduce violence in the city and improve police relations with the community. The city then was in the midst of a tumultuous year, reaching a 20-year high of 34 homicides.

Seventeen months later, the number of homicides in the Elm City has dropped by 50 percent to 17 — a fall that Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and other city officials have largely attributed to the police department’s switch to a model of community policing that moves officers away from their desks and puts them on walking patrols throughout the city.

But despite the success of Esserman’s community-oriented policing strategy, larger structural issues remain key drivers responsible for the city’s crime rate — problems that city officials and crime experts said must be addressed in conjunction with community policing to eradicate the sources of crime.

The fundamental problems are deeply rooted in the economic and social fabric of the city. New Haven remains one of the most socially fragmented cities in the country, with neighborhoods like Newhallville, Fair Haven and West River home to nearly 85 percent of the Elm City’s homicides over the last eight years.

The city is also plagued by one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation: DeStefano said that 70 percent of New Haven violent crime in the last few years involves ex-offenders, highlighting the need to find strategies to address those returning to the city post-incarceration.

As part of the effort to confront the structural problems driving crime, city officials have partnered with the NHPD and local organizations on a series of social assistance programs to reintegrate ex-offenders and to assist disadvantaged strata of the population, including youth and low-income families. Elm City officials are looking to welfare programs and social services, from prison re-entry initiatives to large public housing transformations, as additional instruments to bring down violence and crime in the city.

And as New Haven continues to bring community policing back to the fore, it remains to be seen whether city officials and local activists can effectively supplement policing efforts with social and economic programs that discourage youth from committing crimes, redevelop crime-ridden neighborhoods and integrate ex-offenders back into civil life.

 

PREVENTING CRIME BEFORE IT BEGINS

In March, city and police officials gathered at the NHPD headquarters at 1 Union Ave. to announce that 107 new cops will hit the streets of New Haven by the end of the year. Following Esserman’s model of community policing, each newly sworn-in police officer will be assigned to walking patrols throughout the city’s neighborhoods. But as new police officers walk their beats, they will find a collection of communities that suffer from racial divisions, barriers to economic growth and a culture of crime, and the success of their efforts to reduce crime will be contingent on a growing network of social programs aimed at alleviating these tensions.

Predominantly African-American neighborhoods like Dixwell and Newhallville have historically been plagued by poverty, illegal drug use and violence. In contrast, the communities surrounding Downtown and East Rock, a location inhabited by many professors and graduate students, have been relatively safe havens for years. All of the neighborhoods hit by two or more homicides in the past seven years have been predominantly African-American, like Newhallville, or Hispanic, like Fair Haven, according to a map released in January by Data Haven, a nonprofit organization that compiles public information for the New Haven Greater Area.

“Economic inequality is one of the major factors driving crime trends,” said Mark Abraham ’04, executive director at Data Haven. Twelve percent of the African-American and Latino residents of New Haven could not afford to pay for housing in 2012, compared to just 4 percent of white residents, according to a March 2013 report compiled by the Greater New Haven Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The same report highlighted that 25 percent of African-Americans and 40 percent of Latinos did not have enough money to buy food at some point during 2012, compared to 15 percent of non-minority residents.

With New Haven now characterized by high levels of wealth disparity, city officials are looking to welfare programs to bridge the wealth and education gap between minority and non-minority residents. From teen crime prevention services to food shelters, the city has established an extensive safety net for New Haven’s most fragile and vulnerable citizens.

“We have a responsibility to one another. We have a responsibility to our community,” DeStefano said.

The Elm City has long been home to a wide array of social assistance services. In the early 1960s, the first welfare programs started sprouting up in the city as part of the War on Poverty, poverty reduction legislation spearheaded by then-U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, and since then, the city has seen the growth of services including youth programs and vocational training workshops.

“New Haven has a strong tradition of welfare and social assistance — the city was, and is, a national leader in redeveloping programs and human services programs,” said William Ginsberg, president of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, which distributed over $21 million in grants last year to hundreds of city nonprofits. “This is my general philosophy: Whatever we can do — not only with social assistance, but also with education and professional training — it all contributes to people’s individual success in life and to a more stable and prosperous society.”

Ginsberg said many of the New Haven social assistance programs deal with youth-specific issues. Some programs, like YOUTH@WORK, provide summer and year-round workplace exposure to youth from socioeconomically disadvantaged families.

The most recently instituted program, Project Longevity, offers current gang members services like substance abuse therapy and career counseling as alternatives to a life of crime but promises no tolerance to those who continue to commit violent crime.

“Project Longevity will send a powerful message to those who would commit violent crimes targeting their fellow citizens that such acts will not be tolerated and that help is available for all those who wish to break the cycle of violence and gang activity,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at a Nov. 26 press conference announcing the initiative.

Developed by U.S. attorney for Connecticut David Fein’s office in collaboration with local, state and federal government, Project Longevity is modeled after similar programs that have reduced gun violence in Boston, Chicago and other cities across the country, though Connecticut’s version is the first implemented on a statewide basis.

The State of Connecticut and the federal government also look to welfare to reduce New Haven wealth disparities. The Elm City is the third biggest beneficiary of food stamps and welfare checks in Connecticut, right after Hartford and Bridgeport, according to data compiled by the Connecticut Department of Social Services. Between July 2011 and June 2012, 19,107 households in New Haven benefited from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a nutrition program that helps low-income families buy food. During the same time frame, 2,019 families received monetary benefits through the Temporary Family Assistance program, the nation’s primary cash-welfare program for families with children.

While DeStefano, Abraham and other social services administrators in New Haven said welfare is necessary to combat poverty and bring down crime, critics of the system said these kinds of cash benefits for needy households and individuals might have the opposite effect.

Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute — a Washington-based libertarian think tank — said that as “welfare contributes to the rise in out-of-wedlock births and single-parent families,” family values are eroded and criminal activity increases. Tanner also added that young African-American men are marginalized by the welfare check in “their role of father and bread-winner”.

The timing of welfare payments leads to an increase in criminal activity at the end of the month, said finance professor Fritz Foley. Foley, who teaches at Harvard Business School, said that individuals who receive their welfare checks at the beginning of the month often exhaust these payments rapidly. As more crime takes place in the latter half of each month, Foley suggested that many welfare recipients turn to crime to supplement their income.

An increased frequency of welfare payments would mitigate patterns in crime, Foley said.

Ginsberg and others involved in Elm City social programs said they do not find these critiques particularly surprising.

“These are arguments that one typically hears in the political debate about funding for these kinds of program,” Ginsberg said. “The truth is, welfare programs have made huge difference in the lives of the society.”

Neil Gilbert, a professor of social welfare and social services at UC Berkeley and author of the 1997 book “Welfare Justice: Restoring Social Equality,” said criminal behavior is “too complex” to claim a definitive causal relationship between welfare programs and the crime rate. Numerous factors — such as police surveillance, demographical concentrations, gun possession and economic circumstances — affect crime trends in urban areas like New Haven, Gilbert explained.

But while food stamps and welfare checks provide a safety net for low-income families, poverty in New Haven remains disproportionately concentrated in certain neighborhoods of the city —  areas that become particularly vulnerable to crime and violence.

 

DESIGN CRIME OUT OF NEIGHBORHOODS

Over 2,000 families in New Haven live in public housing complexes located throughout the city. Densely populated, low-income public housing high-rises are symbols of an underprivileged socioeconomic reality and, often, hot spots for crime. Extensive revitalization projects can supplement the NHPD’s community policing efforts to reduce violence and crime in these areas, city officials and crime experts said.

Sociology professor Andrew Papachristos said the connection between public housing complexes and higher crime rates can be partly explained by Oscar Newman’s “defensible space theory.” The theory claims that the physical characteristics of a residential environment can allow inhabitants to ensure their own safety, Papachristos said.

For example, he said, high-rise public housing complexes, like those found in the Elm City, tend to foster gang violence because of their compact nature, which allows prospective criminals an easily accessible view into the lives of their neighbors. The debate over the “high rise, high crime” theory is an ongoing one, with crime experts and architects alike speculating over whether the crimes occur as a result of the built environment, or if they are merely symptoms of pre-existing problems.

Other U.S. cities, such as Atlanta and Chicago, have effectively brought down crime in densely populated, crime-ridden neighborhoods through extensive revitalization projects. In the early 1990s, both cities faced serious problems with their public housing, as high-crime developments were marginalizing residents and contributing to the neighborhood’s decline, said Abraham, Data Haven executive director. In the past 20 years, the two cities undertook the nation’s largest public housing transformations, launching ambitious efforts to transform old developments into new, mixed-income communities.

Between 1996 and 2011, the Atlanta Housing Authority tore down public housing that isolated thousands of citizens from the rest of the city and relocated approximately 10,000 households to the private market, said Renee Lewis Glover GRD ’72, CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority. Similarly, Chicago relocated about 6,400 households between 1999 and 2008. Gun violence subsequently decreased by 4.4 percent in Chicago and violent crime dropped by 0.7 percent in Atlanta.

“Just a decade ago, Chicago was the poster child for failed public housing policy because of its inability to serve low-income families and the city,” said Charles Woodyard, CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority. “Today, we are a model of housing and community revitalization.”

Following the two cities’ example, the Housing Authority of New Haven will soon start an extensive revitalization of Farnam Courts, one of the oldest public housing complexes in the city. Located across the Interstate 95, near the intersection of Hamilton Street and Grand Avenue, Farnam Courts is a development of 240 one-, two- and three-bedroom homes for families with children. Over the years, the World War II-era brick complex, with its narrow, dark hallways, has been home to shootings and robberies.

The revitalization project will turn the crime-ridden area into a mixed-income neighborhood, with a combination of owned and rented homes, said New Haven Housing Authority executive director Karen DuBois-Walton ’89.

DuBois-Walton said the relocation of families will start later this year, and the current housing complex will be demolished beginning in 2014. Once the new homes are completed, residents displaced by the demolition will have the option of moving back, she added.

The Farnam Courts transformation project will be paid for by a $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant, which is awarded by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for neighborhood revitalization.

“The Choice Neighborhood grant program is highly competitive, but redeveloping Farnam Courts is a worthy project,” U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro said in an email in January. “Awarding the funds would help revitalize not just Farnam Courts and its residents, but also the surrounding area, which would be a positive step for the whole city.”

Farnam Courts is not the first public housing transformation the Elm City has undertaken. In 2006, New Haven rebuilt Quinnipiac Terrace, which had previously suffered from similar chronic crime as Farnam Courts,  through a HOPE VI federal government grant. And back in 1993, the city received another $45 million Hope VI grant to build the 35-acre Monterey Place on the site of the former Elm Haven public housing project on Webster Street.

“Building communities that are not simply concentrated pockets of poverty yield many benefits that contribute to well functioning communities,” DuBois-Walton said, adding that each redevelopment has been marked by reductions in crime, improvements in lease compliance and fewer evictions.

As New Haven embarks on these redevelopment projects, police and city officials expect to see decreases in crime. But to bring social support programs full circle, the Elm City cannot ignore the thousands of offenders released from Connecticut prisons every year.

 

OUT OF PRISON, BACK TO SOCIETY

In its efforts to deter crime, the city’s police department is going to great lengths to strengthen ties with New Haven residents. But a large portion of criminal activities in the city often involve former offenders who, unable to transition into civil life, gravitate back toward crime and violence.

While the Department of Correction was unable to provide specific recidivism rates for the city of New Haven, a February 2012 state survey reported that 79 percent of 14,398 ex-offenders released from prison in 2005 were re-arrested within five years of their release; 69 percent were convicted of a new crime and 50 percent were returned to prison with a new sentence, according to a study completed by the State Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division of the Office of Policy and Management.

In addition to ex-offenders that have been released from prison, the Connecticut Department of Correction also handles approximately 250 parolees who are currently living in the city of New Haven, as well as mental health, DUI and sex offenders, according to parole manager Stephen Noto. City Hall is taking action to create social services dedicated to assisting parolees and individuals coming out of incarceration.

Every month, about 60 ex-offenders visit Eric Rey, the coordinator of New Haven’s Prison Reentry Initiative,in his second floor City Hall office. Many of them have been just released from prison after fully serving their sentences. Others are still on parole. They come with questions on employment guidance, child support, medical treatment and driving permits, Rey said.

“Some of them just come in for a pep talk,” Rey added.

Launched in 2008 to combat recidivism, the Prison Reentry Initiative aims to facilitate and support the reintegration of formerly incarcerated residents into the New Haven community. DeStefano, who spearheaded the initiative, said the city needed a “coordinative point of entry” for ex-offenders to navigate the array of social services offered in the city post-incarceration. The initiative, he said, helps ex-offenders connect to career agencies, educational resources and medical assistance centers.

“The more access ex-offenders have to services, the more likely they are to put behind them some of the things that put them in trouble in the first place,” Rey said.

In particular, increasing access to employment opportunities, as well as education and professional training, plays a huge role in preventing recidivism, Rey explained.

“When you have a job you feel good about yourself — you look at yourself differently,” he said. “The more time goes by, the less you think about yourself as criminal.”

The Prisoner Reentry Initiative pushed for passing a “Ban the Box” ordinance in February 2009. The ordinance, which was drafted by the City’s Community Services Administration, removed the question about an applicant’s prior convictions from all city-related job application forms. According to the ordinance, the city can review a candidate’s criminal history only after a provisional employment offer has been made.

Rey said the ordinance “takes off the pressure” that makes job-hunting especially intimidating for ex-offenders.

“This ordinance really levels the playing field for those coming out of incarceration,” he said. “It helps to provide a vehicle by which the city can make decisions on hiring the best person for the job, regardless of whether you have a criminal history.”

The initiative also works in conjunction with community partners, state agencies and other stakeholders to direct ex-offenders toward employment opportunities, Rey said.

Workforce Alliance, for instance, is one of the largest workforce development agencies in the New Haven area to run prisoner reentry programs. With three careers centers — in New Haven, Hamden and Meriden — the organization provides a host of free services to citizens in search of a job, including resume writing and interview assistance and skills development workshops.

Of the 16,000 individuals who benefited from the organization’s services last year, 300 were ex-offenders, according to Robert Fort, marketing director for Workforce Alliance. He added that about 200 of those people successfully found an occupation within several months of signing up to Workforce Alliance programs.

“This was a tremendous success for our ex-offenders program,” Fort said.

All of the programs offered by Workforce Alliance are funded through money from the federal government. However, for some experts, funding for the reintegration of formerly incarcerated residents should come from private enterprises rather than taxpayers.

Gilbert said the presence of private investments in prisoner rehabilitation programs reduces recidivism while saving the government money, adding that Connecticut’s high recidivism rate shows a weakness inherent in the publicly funded reentry system.

“We spend a lot of money locking them up, but then they go back [to prison] because it’s difficult for them to find jobs,” Gilbert said. “But you have a lot more at stake when private investors are involved, because private enterprises aren’t going to invest unless they know they can make a difference.”

Several prisoner reentry programs in the United Kingdom are funded by a “social impact bond,” also known as a “pay for success” bond. If the program succeeds in diminishing recidivism, investors will be partially reimbursed by the city. If the program fails, the investors lose their money, saving taxpayer expense. The model has also been recently adopted in a handful of U.S. cities, such as a prisoner rehabilitation program in New York City funded by Goldman Sachs.

While it remains to be seen whether New Haven will follow suit, the efforts of social assistance organizations will continue to play their part in lowering crime rates and complementing community policing.

“People talk to us; they might not talk to the 911 operator, but it’s amazing how they reach out to their police officers,” Esserman said.

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