Solutions for violence in Austin face slow implementation, money troubles

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Eight-year-old Ivory Chester looks on at the site of a 2014 drive-by shooting in the 5700 block of West Augusta in Austin. - ALEX WROBLEWSKI / SUN-TIMES
  • Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times
  • Eight-year-old Ivory Chester looks on at the site of a 2014 drive-by shooting in the 5700 block of West Augusta in Austin.

Last July, in the middle of a violent year, Cook County commissioner Richard Boykin gathered Austin residents at the west-side neighborhood's By the Hand Club for Kids. For three and a half hours, around 100 community members, civic leaders, and elected officials met to discuss what was needed to end the violence in Austin. In 2016, 88 of the city's 783 shootings, or 11 percent, occurred there.

Restoring hope to Austin and other communities that regularly see high numbers of homicides would come with restoring jobs, providing parenting workshops, and imposing stricter curfews, summit attendees proposed.

These solutions have been implemented slowly over the seven months since the summit took place, but change hasn't been fast enough for Boykin or community organizers who say that poor communication between various levels of government and a lack of money have inhibited progress.

"The violence we're seeing now is a prelude to what we could see in the summer if we don't put policy in place to deal with the rapidly escalating violence," Boykin said in a recent phone interview, alluding to the 15 shootings that have taken place in Austin so far in 2017. "At the genesis is a need for political courage to change it."

As a result of the summit, a $1 million job training program is now in the works, thanks to money set aside in the 2017 county budget. The program, called Employment and Training Services for Opportunity Youth, will target the South Shore, Back of the Yards, and Austin neighborhoods, and will offer employment and training services for people ages 16 through 24 who aren't connected to either employment or education, according to a statement from the county's Justice Advisory Council.

Parenting workshops are also in the beginning stages of planning, Boykin says, adding that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has indicated to the board a "willingness to give money to parenting resources."

Though this is a good start, Boykin says, he argues that more money is needed for these and other programs to have a real effect on these communities. Boykin also sees the need for improved coordination between the "three chief executives"—the mayor, Governor Bruce Rauner, and Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle. A lack of communication between these officials, he says, keeps money from communities devastated the most by violence.

Preckwinkle, he says, "ought to sit down with the mayor and the governor to talk about the violence."

But Frank Shuftan, chief spokesperson for Preckwinkle's office, said in a statement that gun violence can't be solved with a few meetings.

"We've been quite clear that reversing the rash of gun violence in our communities will require a multi-faceted approach, and importantly, the will to pursue such an approach," Shuftan wrote. "The communities suffering the worst violence also have the highest levels of unemployment, lowest levels of education, poorest housing stock and closed school buildings. We must commit to revitalizing these communities and giving their residents hope. Only then will we see real and sustainable progress."

On the state level, Boykin points out, the budget stalemate has had a particularly negative impact on violence prevention. CeaseFire had its state funding cut due to the budget impasse; other vital programs that provide after-school programs to students or skills to help young people stay away from gangs and drugs are at a standstill.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that some Austin residents, like Gaby Davidson, a member of the Greater Austin Independent Political Organization (GAIPO), have become impatient with the efforts of elected officials. The stop-and-go pace of government solutions to gun violence has made the organization shy away from working directly with or endorsing politicians.

"There's not much transparency, and it's hard to know who's in control and if things are going where they need to go," Davidson says. "We're unimpressed with the movement of our officials. We have to organize and demand the changes that we need."

Last June, around 50 Austin residents attended a GAIPO community meeting at Christ English Lutheran Church to talk about gun violence and to focus on keeping elected officials accountable. The solutions they came up with largely mirror the solutions proposed at Boykin's summit: job training programs, parenting workshops, mental health and trauma resources, and better-funded schools.

Constantina Davis, another GAIPO member who attended the June meeting, says that more needs to be done especially to ensure people get jobs.

"There are some [job-training] programs," Davis says, including those offered at 10 S. Kedzie, a city-run community service center in East Garfield Park. "But some of the jobs that they offer require degrees, or people need transportation to get to them."

Davis says training programs aimed at unskilled workers, as well as getting jobs back into Austin, are where the resources are needed most.

Boykin says he understands these frustrations, as the gun violence in neighborhoods like Austin is tied to a lack of development and a sense of hopelessness, he says. It's also why he sees restoring resources as elected leaders' responsibility.

"I fundamentally believe that government has failed the people in many of these communities," Boykin says. "We have an obligation to protect people in all 77 of [Chicago's] neighborhoods. When we fail to do that, we fail at our most basic obligation."


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