Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Prove your anti-violence program works - or lose your funding | Helen Ubiñas

The city is spending money to combat gun violence, but not much is changing. Let's change that.

Mayor Kenney talks to  (from left) Trina Singleton, Lisa Espinosa, and Kathy Lees, all of whom lost sons to gun violence.
Mayor Kenney talks to (from left) Trina Singleton, Lisa Espinosa, and Kathy Lees, all of whom lost sons to gun violence.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

I have a way to help Philadelphia's school system dig itself out of its perpetual hole.

They can have another $60 million tomorrow.

All we have to do is stop funding violence-prevention programs.

Stand down: Obviously, I don't think we should do that, but we are long overdue to hold all these programs – and there are lots of them, big and small — accountable before cutting any more checks.

I've been thinking about this for a while, as story after bloody story appears and well-meaning people try to figure out how to solve this problem, and nothing seems to work. There is, of course, a broader conversation to be had about gun-law reform. But then I looked at the numbers of gunshot victims, and you know what?

They are bad. Still.

Philadelphia has had 154 homicides and 577 shootings this year, according to the latest figures from the Police Department.

In all of 2012, the city reported 1,279 people shot.

It's clear that the numbers aren't moving much.

So, imagine my surprise and relief when I called the city to suggest we start holding these programs accountable, and was told that a few months ago, at Mayor Kenney's direction, the Managing Director's Office started to catalog anti-violence programs with this very goal in mind.

In January, the office hired Shondell Revell as the city's first director of violence prevention. He and others are still digging into the data, but so far they've identified about $60 million in federal, state, and city funding spent across 10 departments yearly on direct, community-based prevention programs focused on gun violence.

"It's evident that those programs need to be better coordinated towards a common vision and mission," said Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt. "The culmination of this effort will result in a public, detailed action plan, developed in partnership with Council and key stakeholders."

Great, and about time.

I could set my watch by the people at gun violence meetings who inevitably insist they need more money.

The thought bubble over my head every time: Is there any proof that what you're doing is actually working?

The short answer is no, because until the city took this up, no one I asked could recall this kind of accounting. Mayor Michael Nutter called a meeting a few years ago, with a bunch of groups, but people who attended don't remember it going anywhere.

Nutter didn't respond to my texts to chat, so I don't know for sure, but I can only imagine it's because these are hard conversations to have with people who all but have halos atop their heads as they take on something that most people don't care about.

Even while meeting with Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis, First Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy, and Revell, the talk of money spent was often interrupted by tales of the commitment of the hard-working people in the trenches.

I don't doubt their good intentions — mostly. We just can't afford not to hold those good intentions accountable, to figure out who or what's working and what isn't. This isn't just about weeding out the con artists. It's about saving lives, which is presumably what we all want, right?

DiBerardinis and others at the table were less harsh than I was: I suggested we cut people off who can't immediately measure their success. DiBerardinis said they aren't just going to cut people off without giving them a chance and helping them to better strategize. Some of the smaller, grassroots organizations that are making the most impact may not have the manpower or knowledge to do this type of auditing.

But Revell was clear: His people are ready to help programs improve and are prepared to pull funding if they don't.

The reactions have been mixed. "We've found a lot of programs that want to get better," said Revell. "I think we need to be real transparent and say, 'You need to provide the services or you're not going to be around.'"

Earlier this month, Council President Darrell L. Clarke, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, and Councilman Curtis Jones introduced a resolution to create a special committee on gun violence prevention that would  meet regularly with leaders from law enforcement, public health, social services, and neighborhoods to come up with ways to combat violent crime.

What they need to do is start holding people's feet to the fire.

I don't disagree that those fighting gun violence are doing God's work.

But even God deserves some straight answers.