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

Lawmakers heralded anti-violence spending as the highlight of a new budget deal. But exactly how the money will be used — and how quickly — remains unclear.

Kendra Van de Water is executive director of Yeah Philly, which works with more than 300 city youths in the evenings when violence is most prevalent. Her group is one of many that could get a boost from $20 million in city funding for violence prevention programs.
Kendra Van de Water is executive director of Yeah Philly, which works with more than 300 city youths in the evenings when violence is most prevalent. Her group is one of many that could get a boost from $20 million in city funding for violence prevention programs.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Dorothy Johnson-Speight has been fighting against gun violence in Philadelphia ever since her son was killed. His 2001 murder during a dispute over a parking space prompted her to found Mothers in Charge, an organization that provides counseling and grief services for traumatized families.

She could soon get more city funding for her efforts.

Johnson-Speight previously got money from the city, but the budget deal reached last week by Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council includes $20 million in community grants for groups like Mothers in Charge. It’s part of an effort to support and expand violence prevention programs outside policing as the city faces soaring shootings and homicides.

She hopes that money will be distributed quickly and become a permanent feature of future budgets.

“Time is of the essence,” she said. “We are losing too many people every day.”

Lawmakers heralded $68 million in new antiviolence spending as the highlight of last week’s budget deal, which ended weeks of protracted negotiations. But much of that was already in the budget and was merely reclassified as antiviolence funding — such as money for Parks and Recreation and libraries that was cut after the pandemic took hold and that is now being partially restored.

The $27.1 million actually added through budget talks includes funding for community grants, the Commerce Department, and new curfew centers.

Council is expected to approve the budget Thursday. But exactly how the additional money will be used — and how quickly — remains unclear. The process for distributing $20 million in grants hasn’t been determined. Council and the Kenney administration are still developing a system for selecting recipients and administering the grants.

”Those details are still being worked out,” Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble said.

» READ MORE: What to know about the new Philly budget after City Council and Mayor Jim Kenney finally made a deal

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who was among the members who pushed for $100 million in new antiviolence investments, said the $68 million still represented a victory. But oversight and transparency will be key to ensuring it makes a difference, she said.

”If we’re saying, for example, that our efforts at blight remediation are a violence prevention strategy, then I expect to see neighborhoods that have been suffering the most from gun violence to get investments,” Gauthier said.

The attention on violence prevention comes as cities across the country are grappling with waves of shootings and homicides. President Joe Biden launched a campaign Wednesday to stem the gun violence. It includes a plan for Philadelphia and 14 other cities to expand and improve community-based antiviolence programs.

There have been 1,003 shootings so far this year in Philadelphia, a 27% increase compared with this time last year. The 261 homicides so far represent a 37% increase.

“The challenge is going to be spending the money in the kind of focused ways that will allow us to learn what works and what doesn’t,” said Jerry Ratcliffe, a criminal justice professor at Temple University.

» READ MORE: Adding millions to violence prevention efforts is a waste without evaluation | Opinion

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who chairs a special committee on gun violence and led much of the effort for more funding, said he and Council leadership will create an oversight process and may use a third-party organization to help do so.

Councilmember María Quiñones-Sánchez noted that the city already funds many existing groups “who receive and spend millions annually with no public discussion or accountability.”

“This new investment is targeted to neighborhood-based groups … many already doing the work on the ground in our communities,” she said.

Success may look different for different organizations. Yeah Philly, which works with more than 300 city youths in the evenings when violence is most prevalent, will be carefully looking at the grant process, said Kendra Van de Water, the group’s executive director.

Evaluations based on evidence of progress can sometimes be expensive and may be difficult for smaller organizations to undergo.

“Sometimes we get so caught up in services being very specific for everyone and I think that each person is an individual, so they have to be serviced as such,” Van de Water said. “So the needs vary and so should the term of funding in general.”

» READ MORE: Biden’s anti-violence plan calls for Philly to work with other cities fighting rising gun crimes

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart released a report last month showing that Philadelphia spends substantially less than other cities on targeted violence prevention programs. New York and Los Angeles, for example, spent $26,000 and $24,000, respectively, per shooting victim in 2020, on programs that are coordinated through community organizations. Philadelphia spent $6,000 per shooting victim on the Office of Violence Prevention and transitional jobs programs, Rhynhart found.

”It’s a good thing that there’s more money put into the budget to stop this violence, because kids are dying every day, but we need to make sure that the money is spent well,” she said.

Kenney’s original budget proposal included $18.7 million in new spending for what his administration classified as antiviolence initiatives. That amount included money for establishing a 911 co-responder program to have mental health professionals respond alongside police to crisis calls, expanding group violence intervention programs, and cleaning up vacant lots and improving lighting in neighborhoods affected by gun violence.

» READ MORE: Meet the new Philly budget. Same as the old budget.

During negotiations with Council, the administration expanded the definition of antiviolence spending, reclassified some existing programs as violence prevention, and agreed to add $27.1 million. Of that total, $20 million will fund community grants, $5.6 million will go to the Commerce Department for job training and other initiatives, and $1.5 million will fund curfew centers where kids out late can go for support.

Of the total $68 million, $10.9 million is rolling over from the current budget into the fiscal year that starts July 1, for initiatives such as summer jobs programs. Those items were funded in the current budget, Gamble said, but did not start in the last year.

» READ MORE: Children shot in Philadelphia bear the scars of our ineptitude | Helen Ubiñas

”It’s not so much about the definition as it is about the implementation and making sure that there’s a true connection between what we’re doing to alleviate gun violence and all of these budget areas,” Gauthier said.

Even with the additional money, not everyone got what they wanted. Parks and Recreation and libraries were not restored to pre-pandemic funding levels. Libraries will return to five-day services but were open six days a week before the coronavirus shutdown last year.

Kenney said restoring any cuts is “an accomplishment, considering what we’ve been through.” He defended his administration’s approach to surging gun violence, emphasizing that other cities are facing the same challenge.

”There’s a lot more resources that were on the table than were there, and we’ll see how much that helps,” Kenney said.

Many who haven’t had access to the small grants are hopeful that will change.

“For years we have been putting a Band-Aid on things that needed surgery,” said Rickey Duncan, CEO and executive director of the NOMO foundation, a local youth empowerment organization.

The problems won’t be fixed overnight even with the added funding, he said, but grassroots organizations like his will have the opportunity to help rehabilitate the city.

“I think by the end of the fiscal year there will be some great quantitative measurements that will be put forward for the people to see that it did work,” he said.

Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this article.