SEATTLE (AP) — Javier Luna owns a successful construction business and a million-dollar view home near Dash Point in Tacoma. Until the recent economic downturn, his firm employed 13 people and worked with another 40 subcontractors. He volunteers at his younger children's elementary school. His oldest son started college in the fall at the University of Washington.
It's not a future many would have predicted for the former Franklin High School student and one-time gang member. In the late 1980s, when gangs from Los Angeles and Chicago imported drive-by shootings and a devastating trade in crack cocaine to Seattle streets, Luna wore the blue colors of the Crips. He carried a gun and sold drugs. Most of his friends ended up dead or in prison, he said.
Luna, 34, credits the complete turnaround in his life, even his survival, to a city of Seattle initiative that provided adult mentors, jobs and recreation to young gang members.
"I got all of this because an individual gave me a chance and believed in me and the system allowed it," he said.
Luna's caseworker, Mathis Hill, who at the time worked for the Seattle agency YouthCare, brought him together with other gang members from around the city. Hill took him shopping for clothes and food, helped him land a city job, and offered "straight talk" — where life in a gang would lead and how he could work toward more positive goals.
As the city confronts a new wave of youth violence and gang activity, several of the men who worked almost 20 years ago as caseworkers and mentors under the umbrella organization, Seattle Team for Youth, said the program lost its focus in recent years and may be one factor in the return of gang violence.
"What we're seeing today are the children of the people I dealt with 20 years ago. These are their kids," said Hill, a King County juvenile-detention officer who was Luna's caseworker and mentor from 1990 to 1993.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed an $8 million initiative to combat youth violence that would identify 800-high risk children and provide them with caseworkers and a range of social services.
But the proposal has already run into opposition from some City Council members who say it focuses too much on prevention and doesn't adequately address the need for uniformed police officers in select high schools and for stronger measures to prevent illegal gun sales.
"The City Council is not going to release money until we see a more balanced plan," said Councilmember Tim Burgess, who said there were 136 gang-related gun crimes in 2008, including 11 homicides.
The Seattle Police Department has been reluctant to identify specific crimes as gang-related, absent a suspect or an established motive, but has acknowledged the growing youth violence.
Larry Evans, now an aide to Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, was another case manager and gang-intervention specialist. He said the Team for Youth program was successful because it worked across agency boundaries and allowed the mentors to go into schools and homes and to respond day or night as they were needed.
"It wasn't just a job for us, it was a passion," he said.
But as the violence diminished, Evans said, "the city shifted its priorities." He said the number of jobs available to youth decreased and high-risk kids were no longer given hiring preference.
The city in 2004 turned its attention to students failing to pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) or to graduate from high school, and did less outreach to dropouts.
A 1991 city levy paid for new community centers, including Garfield and Rainier, some with late-night programs to keep teens off the streets. But Evans said that over the past decade, the staff and programming at these centers has "gentrified."
"The existing city programs are not for kids that are heavily gang-involved. They're not for the kids at highest risk."
Team for Youth may have been a victim of its own success, said Eric Anderson, director of Youth Development for the city. As the program became better known, there were more referrals from the courts and schools and less need for outreach.
But Anderson said that even as the emphasis for the program shifted, the city continued to partner with the courts and schools to serve at-risk youth. "We never really stopped working with dropouts," he said.
Nickel's youth-violence initiative does call for community centers to develop new programming for high-risk teens, said Holly Miller, director of the city's Office for Education. She said that while the original Team for Youth model was in many ways successful, outcomes were poorly documented and the program needed refocusing after 18 years.
Miller agreed that the emphasis on academic success reached too few youth. She said the new initiative will include outreach and case management and the city will target young people who are most at risk to participate in or become victims of violence. The city will ask for better data, will increase the number of community partnerships referring youth and supporting them, and will make course corrections based on the results.
Still, Evans is skeptical about the mayor's initiative. He's concerned that the money will go to agencies charged with administering the programs and not directly to those providing mentoring and case management.
He said that when the city began to shift its attention to academic success and away from outreach to kids who'd already left school, he predicted that gang activity would return. Now that crime statistics bear out that fear, he hopes the city won't repeat the mistake.
"The core issues that resulted in kids joining gangs — poverty, broken families, hopelessness, the loss of a culture that supports education — those didn't go anywhere," Evans said.