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Philadelphia promised $68 million in new antiviolence spending. Here’s how it’s going.

Experts in violence prevention say Philadelphia’s strategy should be more targeted and focused on areas with the most need.

Walter Pearson (left) accepts his completion certificate from Dominic “Coach” Speach at a PowerCorpsPHL meeting at Stenton Family Farm in Philadelphia on December 16.
Walter Pearson (left) accepts his completion certificate from Dominic “Coach” Speach at a PowerCorpsPHL meeting at Stenton Family Farm in Philadelphia on December 16.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

When Philadelphia City Council and Mayor Jim Kenney reached a budget deal in June, they touted $68 million in new spending on antiviolence efforts as a historic investment packed with innovative tools.

Six months later, the city is ending the year at an all-time record for homicides and Kenney is facing criticism for rolling out some of the programs slower than promised.

Officials had said money would start flowing in September to community nonprofits as part of a $22 million grant program, the largest new investment. But the first recipients just started getting money this month; many are still waiting. And a city spokesperson said officials haven’t decided whether to repeat the program next year.

Some new efforts are up and running, including a co-responder program to change the way police react to mental health crises, and evening youth resource centers. Others remain in planning stages, including expansions of intervention and crisis-response programs. The promised evaluations of existing programs aren’t completed.

“This is a situation where we’re doing triage and seeing historic numbers of gun violence in communities that have been vulnerable for generations … ,” said Erica Atwood, who leads the city’s Office of Violence Prevention. “And we are innovating the way that we spend money within city government.”

Experts in violence prevention, meanwhile, say Philadelphia’s strategy should be more targeted and focused on areas with the most need.

» READ MORE: Philly blocks besieged by shootings have long endured poverty, blight, and systemic racism

That’s something, they said, cities such as Philadelphia have failed to do in the past.

“They’re spending a lot of money and sprinkling it here or there, but how many of these programs are actually getting to shooters?” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy. “It sounds to me like maybe not much.”

What do experts and critics say about Philly’s antiviolence approach?

Experts said the city needs to analyze the reasons for gun violence and focus on people most likely to become shooters.

”The less focused you are, you might have some other good social outcomes, but what Philadelphia is wrestling with is a crisis of gun violence,” Webster said. “It has to be incredibly intentional and focused in their spending, in their strategy, so that they are truly reaching those at greatest risk.”

» READ MORE: Philly is pouring millions into violence prevention as shootings soar. What does that money buy?

Experts also said Philadelphia must focus not just on individual programs but on building a system that won’t vary between mayoral administrations and has services available to help potential shooters get out of poverty, find jobs, relocate, or even just buy food for their families.

“If we give one organization $4 million or $5 million or $10 million and say, ‘Hey, the problem of Philadelphia that’s been going on for the last 100 years is all on you,’ … it’s not going to happen,” said Chico Tillmon, a senior research fellow at the University of Chicago’s crime and education labs. “If you asked me what’s the best program, it would be a comprehensive program that becomes a part of the system.”

Philadelphia Controller Rebecca Rhynhart has said too much of the spending is unlikely to make a short-term impact. She teamed up with Councilmember Jamie Gauthier this year to ask Kenney to declare a state of emergency over gun violence, and this month they argued the administration lacks transparency and hasn’t acted quickly enough to roll out or expand programs.

» READ MORE: 5 key takeaways from the controller's report on Philly’s antiviolence spending

“There seems to be a lack of strategy,” Rhynhart said. “What we were calling for was very specific, targeted investments into the neighborhoods that are most impacted and for a sense of urgency around that.”

Lessard said the administration is “acting with urgency.” Atwood said Philadelphia has more programs than many other cities, and that’s necessary to address the many different causes of gun violence.

“We are self-deprecating to a fault here in Philadelphia, but we are doing a lot,” Atwood said. “We are just inundated by guns. … I can’t program my way out of the influx of guns in the city; I just can’t.”

How does the city evaluate its programs?

When Kenney created the Office of Violence Prevention in 2017, he said it would conduct the first citywide evaluation to gauge the effectiveness of the city’s dozens of existing antiviolence efforts. More than four years later, that evaluation isn’t completed.

Atwood said that goal was included in the Roadmap for Safer Communities plan that launched in 2019, and the work was slowed by the pandemic.

“The overarching strategy … is really about looking at the work and how do we better align our assets and our resources,” she said. “And we need the time to do that.”

» READ MORE: Growing calls for accountability of Philly’s taxpayer-funded antiviolence programs giving me hope | Helen Ubiñas

Philadelphia has contracted the University of Pennsylvania and the American Institute for Research to evaluate Group Violence Intervention and the Community Crisis Intervention Program, respectively. An initial report on Group Violence Intervention expected earlier this year has been repeatedly delayed and is now expected in the coming weeks, Lessard said. The Community Crisis Intervention evaluation is a two-year project that will be complete by the end of June, he said.

Webster said ongoing evaluations are critical not only for accountability and transparency but as a way to improve.

“If you try something and you’re not getting the results that you hoped for, you should not be tarred and feathered or embarrassed or anything,” he said. “You should say, ‘OK let’s at least learn from that and see how we can improve our response to this problem.’”

Is there accountability for the groups that get city money?

Philadelphia’s existing contracts with the Urban Affairs Coalition, which helps run its intervention programs, don’t contain specific requirements for reporting progress or data, according to an Inquirer review of the contract language.

Atwood said the contract will expire in June and she is working to revise it. “There will be some different metrics in the new contract,” she said.

The city also plans to measure the progress of community groups in the new grant program.

“We’re not dissecting them and the work that they do. What we want to do is support them in telling their story utilizing the data that they have,” Atwood said.

What’s the status of the new community grant program?

The city announced the first group of awardees in October, and they started receiving money this month.

“We’ve gotten money out as fast as humanly possible,” Atwood said, and all groups should receive money next month.

The program was advertised as $22 million, but only $13.5 will go to organizations. Lessard said $870,000 went to a smaller, preexisting grant program, $2.6 million was held for a later round of grants, and $5 million will go to program administration, supporting the nonprofits, and evaluating their work.

Gauthier, who serves on a monitoring group for the grant program, said the slow pace has been frustrating.

”I do understand that there are aspects of setting up a pretty sophisticated [application] process that can take time,” she said. “But I do question that there were things we could have done to advance things in the meantime. … Could we have gotten money to some of those groups more quickly?”

Which organizations got grants?

For PowerCorps PHL, the grant was welcome news because it essentially replaces some of its city funding that was cut last year.

Executive director Julia Hillengas said the organization received almost $1.5 million annually from the city before COVID-19, but that has since dropped to less than $400,000 for training crews to work for the Water and Parks and Recreation Departments.

“It is definitely my hope that the city can come back to its original support of the organization,” said Miles Wilson, president and CEO of EducationWorks, which runs PowerCorps PHL.

Lessard called PowerCorps PHL “an important stakeholder” but said the grant covers a specific program and isn’t a contribution to the organization’s operating costs.

Rickey Duncan of NoMo Foundation, a North Philadelphia organization that runs after-school programs, said his group fronted the money for its expansion as it waits for its $1 million grant.

“We understand it’s a process, but we’re patiently waiting,” he said.

Are there groups that didn’t get grants?

The city received 212 grant applications. Atwood said the organizations that got money have programs that can immediately serve those who are at risk of getting shot.

S. Archye Leacock, executive director for the Institute for African American Youth Inc. in North Philadelphia, has run a city-funded diversion intervention program since the 1990s that mentors people under 18 who have been arrested.

Leacock applied for a grant to expand his program to at-risk young men who haven’t been arrested. He said he was shocked to learn he wasn’t selected, given his decades of experience.

“You would think that people would be banging on my door to say: ‘Let’s get you some more funding, let’s get you some more help. What do you need?’” he said.

Councilmember Cindy Bass, also in the monitoring group, said she’s heard from qualified groups that didn’t receive funding.

”We just need to provide more of what we are providing,” she said. “It’s not enough.”

Which other programs are already underway, and which aren’t?

Three curfew centers that give at-risk youth a safe place to go at night opened this month. A pilot program to change the way police respond to mental health crises launched last month. Money has also gone out to smaller community groups and various job programs.

The following programs, city officials say, are among those still in planning stages:

  1. The expansion of Group Violence Intervention and the Community Crisis Intervention Program, which work with people most likely to shoot or be shot. The city is still hiring caseworkers and working to contract more providers.

  2. A program modeled after READI Chicago, which offers mental health services and job training to young men most at risk for experiencing violence, will have a pilot program by July.

  3. An antiviolence hotline, for which the city said a contractor would be announced in the coming weeks.

  4. A construction training program to improve business storefronts in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods is still being developed.

  5. Expansion of a mobile crisis response unit and a crisis hotline are still in progress.

What’s taking so long for some of these programs?

City officials said they’re working hard, but planning and hiring take time. Kenney told reporters last week that the city is “making some headway” on prevention efforts but noted that it’s been less than a year since the infusion of new funding.

“We will continue to plug away at it,” he said.

Others are critical. Gauthier said she senses “a lack of urgency” on violence prevention efforts. The Group Violence Intervention and the Community Crisis Intervention Program should have been expanded faster, she said.

“It is an intense program to go out and to connect with people, build trust with people in a way that would help them out of a cycle of violence,” she said. “And we really need to beef up the amount of people that we have doing that work.”

Atwood said it’s difficult to find people who have the specialized expertise to do that work, but the city is “continually expanding not only staffing but the types of supports that we are providing.”

What works well in other cities?

Tillmon, the University of Chicago researcher, said Los Angeles and New York have built antiviolence efforts that work as systems with focused strategies.

“We have examples of what’s working,” he said. “We just have to utilize those examples.”

In Los Angeles, the Gang Reduction and Youth Development program (GRYD) started in 2007 and has survived multiple mayoral administrations. Philadelphia, by contrast, has changed its approach with changes in leadership.

» READ MORE: Philly is pledging new antiviolence strategies. Some have been done before.

Denise Herz, GRYD’s research director and a criminal justice professor at California State University Los Angeles, said the program is unlike other cities’ because it uses data and research to target areas with the most need, and has a unified strategy.

“With GRYD there is the benefit of that focused attention, knowing your brand and sticking with your brand and funding your brand,” she said.

Homicides have still increased in Los Angeles in the last two years. As of mid-December, Los Angeles had 382 homicides this year — a 52% increase compared with that date in 2019. Philadelphia had 535 homicides as of Dec. 16, a 56% increase over 2019.

Still, Los Angeles spends more on GRYD than Philadelphia does on its Office of Violence Prevention and job training programs, according to an analysis by the Philadelphia controller. Los Angeles spent $32,500 in fiscal year 2021 while Philadelphia proposed $13,500 for the current fiscal year. Broken down as dollars spent on intervention efforts per shooting victim in 2020, Philadelphia spent $6,000 while Los Angeles spent $24,000 per victim.

Tillmon said it’s important for cities to give adequate support to intervention programs.

“How can you run an organization on a shoestring budget and expect excellence?” he said.

How will we know if Philadelphia’s new spending has an impact?

Philadelphia officials said they would rely on forthcoming evaluations to measure success.

It’s not as simple as looking for a reduction in shootings — which could be attributable to a variety of factors, experts agree. Evaluations, data, and research are key to knowing if programs work.

“If you’re impacting the lives of individuals … there’s gonna be stories of individuals going through these programs and their lives change,” Tillmon said.

There’s no one set way to reduce shootings, Webster said, but cities have to be open to evaluating and changing their approach.

“It’s just sort of a recognition of, ‘Boy this is a challenging thing to do,’” he said, “and it’s particularly challenging when you’ve got an upward slope in shootings.”