PITTSFIELD -- The city's Community Connection program -- targeting the roots of youth criminal and gang involvement -- is poised to move beyond the "planning and preparation stage," according to coordinator Adam Hinds.
The comprehensive effort has received a $100,000 state Shannon Community Safety Initiative grant for 2014. It seeks to address the underlying issues that can lead teens and youth in their early 20s to crime and gang activity.
Major components include hiring an outreach worker to work with about two dozen youths especially at risk of turning to criminal activity, Hinds said, along with funding for extra police patrols in "hot spot" areas of the city, and for the Salvation Army's Bridging the Gap after-school program for teens.
The efforts will focus primarily on "a handful of vulnerable Pittsfield neighborhoods," he said, adding, "This is where the at-risk youth are located."
In addition, the program has assembled a growing, 20-member steering committee, with representatives from community, employment, medical and law enforcement organizations. The aim, Hinds said, is "for a whole community approach."
Some of the collaborative events and programs for youth and their families are held at the two Community Centers established in 2013 in Pittsfield Housing Authority facilities with the help of an earlier $60,000 Shannon grant.
Hinds, who was hired in March, said preliminary work included surveying city neighborhoods and identifying those areas to concentrate the program's resources. Decisions were based on such factors as crime reports, poverty and unemployment rates, and thus far five neighborhoods located around the general downtown area were identified, he said.
"Essentially, this will be a deep dive into those neighborhoods and streets," Hinds said.
He added that "what also really jumped out at me" was that working with families -- particularly single mothers -- will be crucial.
The five neighborhoods initially targeted range from a five-block area to a large housing complex, Hinds said. In one facility, he said, there were 41 single mothers raising children in the 44 units.
"We aim to form three mom's councils to start," he said. The goal is to work with the families to determine what at-risk youth need and to "learn what the moms' needs are as well."
In a broader sense, there will be an effort to encourage neighbors to support one another and form the community connections suggested in the program's title.
"We really want to hear what the moms tells us," Hinds said. "What they need for their children and what kinds of support they need."
One common factor when young children turn to crime, he said, is a feeling of social isolation -- often prevalent in an era dominated by the Internet amid a decline in unsupervised group activities, such as neighborhood games in the parks or playgrounds.
Drug use also is a focus, Hinds said, though that aspect is handled primarily through the Brien Center, the United Way and other organizations collaborating with Community Connection.
Other factors in youth turning to crime or gang membership involve education -- addressed by tutoring, mentoring and similar programs -- and job skills, addressed through training, mentoring and other initiatives in cooperation with local businesses and agencies.
Building strong neighborhood support groups and ensuring youth a positive experience in school and in the workplace already have emerged as his overarching goals, said Hinds.
Hinds said there are typically two age groups -- 13 to 14 and 20 to 24 -- when youth are likely to turn either to crime or membership in a gang if they can't find positive alternatives. He added that 90 percent of gang members are young males, but girls and young women can also be at risk.
The soon-to-be-hired outreach worker will generally keep in contact throughout the year with 20 to 30 young people identified through involvement in criminal activity, association with family members or others in gangs or other factors.
"The outreach worker will maintain a dialogue over the summer as well," Hinds said.
Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said the program's efforts during the coming summer follow four gang-related shootings in Pittsfield last summer. "This program will play an important role in the effort to get ahead of the challenging summer months when crime activity may increase," he said.
The Bridging the Gap program, which will receive direct funding through the Shannon grant, provides 12 weeks of after-school programming for nonviolent offenders who have entered the juvenile justice system. Young people are helped with anger management, addiction, relationship, decision making, communication and other issues, and with information about employment, financial or other options.
Pittsfield Police will receive funding for increased patrols and overtime costs related to high incidences of youth-related crime or gang activity.
Hinds said the city is expected to receive further Shannon grant funding for the program during 2015. The grants are awarded based on the calendar year.
To reach Jim Therrien:
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