Working 4 You: Opportunity for the Condemned

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - "One...two..four houses right there," says Willie Graves, Little Rock crime intervenor.

Where some see obstacles, others envision opportunity.

"Those are jobs right there," he says.

"Let's clean these neighborhoods up. Give us some funds to work with to train some people and get them down here to build and work on these houses. Turn this back into something," adds Slim Parker, another Little Rock crime intervenor.

This group of former felons is the City of Little Rock's Intervention Street Team. They work in crime hot spots, forming relationships.

"We can tell them to put down the dopes and put down the guns and stuff. But when they do that, what can we give them?," Parker asks.

"We think it's a win-win. these young people would be taken off the streets so to speak into productive roles," says Wayne Burt, Little Rock Community Support Specialist and Street Team Supervisor.

Abandoned homes and overgrown lots...the foundation for their idea is to give young people caught up in the hustle...a way out.

"They end up leaving school without diplomas and without skills. You really can't participate in the mainstream economy when you don't have those skills," explains Burt.

Paid training for young adults paired with willing local contractors to rehab dilapidated homes would eliminate blight and replace lucrative incomes from dealing drugs.

"That underground economy is what brings the violence, crime and that kind of thing," Burt continues.

"What's not there is what we have to see," says Tristan Wilkerson, who has worked with other cities where programs like this have worked...many focused on felons re-entering society.

"This is one of the ways that cities look to reduce crime. One of the ways cities look to rehabilitate communities, strengthen communities," says Wilkerson, Interim Executive Director of the Philander Smith Social Justice Institute.

Large cities like New York, San Francisco and D.C. have taken a form of technical education and organized programs...to change trajectories.

"And maybe that's the start, right? Career and technical education, get to the point where we open up jobs and then we move into some of these other things we need to move into," Wilkerson says.

Other things like affordable housing, education, poverty. They're all connected. But it requires strategic plans about community input, public-private partnerships, and possible incentives.

"We have to take those risks and have the courage to do that hard work of creating entry points for just about everybody. So, we can build a consensus so we can get past GO," says Wilkerson.

Part of passing go, is getting buy-in from outside these neighborhoods. You might be wondering, 'I don't live here, why should I care?' Just one example...property values. Dilapidated houses in one location can drive down property values in another area. So where once the city was able to tax a property for more, it's now only able to tax that lesser value. That's less money in...which is less money to go out to projects across the city.

"It hurts the whole neighborhood. It hurts small businesses, hurts schools, hurts the city. If we can't feel that hurt because we're so detached from it - something's wrong," Wilkerson says.

"We take these former inmates and rehab city sidewalks," says Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.

In 2013, Little Rock established its felon re-entry program. The street team sees its idea to prevent entry into prison as a natural next step, saving incarceration costs and creating taxpaying contributors to society.

"If we can get them before then and make them legitimate - give them legitimate skills so they can earn money legitimately, then they won't be a part of that re-entry community," Burt says.

Every day the street team meets face-to-face with the people who live in these neighborhoods.

"They're not going to help you - they're not going to do nothing. They're lying...it's conversation and attitude," adds Parker.

The crew hears how abandoned homes aren't only eyesores but symbols of something bigger. So, giving potential problem causers a paid opportunity to change how things look could be thge start of dealing with issues below the surface.

"Produce hope and self-respect. That's missing," Burt says.

The team is seeking out grant money to help fund the idea, but they're hoping the faith community and private sector will get on board and contribute as sponsors to the program.

If you're interested in getting involved, they say you should contact the offices of the mayor or city manager to voice your commitment. 

Their contact information is listed below: 
City Manager Bruce Moore
(501) 371-4803
citymanager@littlerock.gov

Mayor Mark Stodola:
(501) 371-4791
mayor@littlerock.gov


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