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“There’s a lot of services available for these kids and you have these families in crisis, but they don’t know where to turn because there’s no single access point,” said Sgt. Mark Reding, who also works in the gang unit.
Keeping youth involved once they are connected to services is a challenge. A couple of years ago, gang unit officers met with families of members in the 18th Street gang to offer them services, and at first the intervention worked.
But after a couple of months, some of the youth and their families became disengaged and police re-encountered some offenders on the streets. Police attributed this to the fact that the family’s other needs weren’t being addressed, such as transportation, housing and jobs.
With the VIP project, if there is a sign of trouble, such as the young person disconnecting from services, stakeholders could be alerted to try to reconnect them.
“We have splintered our work for a long time. Now it’s time for us to come together,” Smith said.
The VIP program will target young people citywide. Although recent incidents have occurred on the East Side, gang violence needs to be tackled throughout St. Paul, said Billy Collins, executive director of the YWCA in St. Paul.
“If you suffocate the flame over here, it’s going to spread over there,” Collins said.
The project is made possible by a two-year grant of $196,000 from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Justice Programs. The funds have not yet been approved by the City Council. The department had previously applied for the grant.
“I don’t want to have the image out there in the community that we have gone soft, because we’re not,” Spencer said of the program. “I think it’s definitely working smarter, not harder.”
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495