“I am devastated by the abrupt and violent withdrawal of this program,” Jonathan McLean, executive director of the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), said at a rally at City Hall.
(Gerardo Romo/NYC Council Media Unit) Demonstration at City Hall Park for NextSTEPS on September 12th.
This article originally appeared in English on September 13. Translated by Daniel Parra.
Read the story in English here.
Dressed in multi-colored T-shirts, members representing more than a dozen nonprofit organizations gathered Tuesday at City Hall Park to protest the city’s decision to eliminate a nearly decade-old program that mentored youth of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).
The NextSTEPS Coalition is made up of groups that help at-risk teens and young adults ages 16-24.
The groups have mentors on staff known as “credible messengers,” who include NYCHA residents, some of whom had unstable upbringings or experienced incarceration. Services provided through NextSTEPS include attending court cases, connecting participants to public assistance resources, and even providing help obtaining a driver’s license.
But on August 24, NextSTEPS members received an email from the New York City Department of Probation (DOP) informing them of the end of their contracts and explaining that the program would have to cease within days. , on August 31. The email offered an extension until Sept. 22, according to Good Shepherd Services, a Manhattan nonprofit.
“I am devastated by the abrupt and violent withdrawal of this program,” Jonathan McLean, executive director of the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), told the crowd on Tuesday.
The nonprofit, which works with youth at NYCHA’s Tompkins Houses in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, helps at-risk teens and young adults connect with educational and employment opportunities while providing services like in-home therapy.
“People often say to me, ‘It’s amazing that you grew up in disadvantaged housing, spent 16 years in prison, and turned your life around’; That’s great,” McLean said. “But what would have happened to someone like me, who didn’t have the opportunity to change his life?”
A DOP spokesperson, contacted for comment, confirmed that the program is being suspended, attributing the decision to an annual evaluation.
“Our youth at NYCHA deserve the best resources and support that New York City has to offer, and that is what the Probation Department provides,” the DOP wrote in an email. “Based on a comprehensive annual evaluation, DOP has determined that young New Yorkers living in public housing can get the mentoring support they deserve through other existing programs and will not renew this $2.5 million program.”
The agency said other DOP and citywide mentoring programs, including Arches, Blue Chips and Girl Talk, will remain available.
Dedric Hammond, also known as “Be-Loved,” is a credible messenger who works with a NextSTEPS organization called Living Redemption Community Development Corporation. Based in Harlem, the group works with 200 young residents living in NYCHA’s Saint Nicholas Houses.
He said the organization provided a “lounge effect” for its participants to let their guard down.
“The reason NextSTEPS was so powerful and great is because you are going out into the community where hell and pain and pain lies,” Hammond said. “[Los mentores] They are a listening ear at three and four in the morning when young people think about causing harm or harming themselves – there were mentors, they had access.”
NextSTEPS was introduced in 2014 under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, who implemented the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP). That year, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice reported a drop in crime citywide, but found that consistent violations persisted in public housing communities.
The office then identified 15 NYCHA housing developments that accounted for approximately 20 percent of the violent crimes within the housing authority. These areas were targeted for additional resources.
Damien Myrick, Good Shepherd Services program director, shared some of his program’s successes.
One student, he said, came from an unstable home and later served in the military. He now works with the New York City Fire Department. Last year, seven participants enrolled in college.
“I’m emotional right now because it hurts,” Myrick said. Brooklyn Councilman Lincoln Restler criticized the DOP for having the “effrontery” to stop services at NextSTEPS.
“Years of great work thrown away, gone up in smoke, eliminated in a matter of hours,” Restler said. “It is shameful that this mayor and the Probation Department do not respect the tremendous work that each and every one of these nonprofits does every day.”
Makeba Reece, a mentor with the Living Redemption Community Development Corporation, participated in the Arches Transformative Mentoring Program, which was introduced during former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in 2012 and is one of the programs still funded by the city.
Arches pairs young adults with mentors during their probation, a period in which convicted criminals must follow rules such as adhering to curfew, passing drug tests and not having contact with any known criminals.
Like NextSTEPS, Arches connects participants with credible messengers who can offer help finding employment, educational opportunities, and advice.
“I’m a product of a mentorship program and look at me now giving something back,” Reece said. “At the end of the day, we’re tired of going to funerals, we’re tired of going to hospitals to visit our babies in the emergency room, and this saved us from enduring that pain.”
If the elimination of NextSTEPS is not reversed, Reece said informal mentoring will continue anyway.
Ahmed Rodriguez, director of community engagement and mediation at NYCHA’s Queensbridge Houses, shared that when he was young, he too received these services. Now, in a position to offer them, Rodríguez said he wants to encourage young people to speak out.
“The one thing I would say that is great today is that we can bring our young participants to help them understand that when they feel uncomfortable and justice is not served, they have an opportunity to say something,” he added.
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