YOUNGSTOWN Residents fear budget cuts will jeopardize safety
The White House said it wants to streamline the federal budget, but the cut will mean a free-for-all for criminals in Youngstown's housing projects, one local official says.
By IAN HILL
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- A proposal to cut federal funding to the Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority has some local residents concerned about the future of their neighborhoods.
"Once the [money] is gone, the drug dealers will be back," said Frances Gray, a resident of the Victory Estates housing project on Youngstown's East Side. Gray is a member of the Victory Estates Resident Patrol, an organization that receives funding through the YMHA's Drug Elimination Program.
The program was created in 1995 using a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1999, YMHA received a $466,000 grant to keep the program running for two years.
President Bush's budget proposal for 2002 would eliminate funding for the program. Congress is debating the funding cut as part of the budget proposal.
Fearful days: Gray said homicides were a regular occurrence in Victory Estates before 1995. She said children had to run from the school buses to their homes to avoid being shot, and drug dealers had no fear of setting up shop on the curb.
Life in the complex was hell, she said.
Then, in 1996, the resident patrol was created. The patrol is a group of 10 Victory Estate residents who work to reduce crime in their neighborhood. The patrol also helps run after-school and tutoring programs at a local community center, and patrol members escort children from the school buses to their homes.
The patrol members take to the streets each day armed with only a T-shirt, hat, flashlight and walkie-talkie, all paid for with HUD money. When the patrol witnesses a crime, it contacts the nine-member Youngstown police squad assigned to the city's government subsidized housing complexes. The squad is also funded through the HUD grant.
Gray said the squad typically responds to a resident patrol call in less than 10 minutes.
Better conditions: Life in Victory Estates began to improve after the resident patrol was created. Drug dealers now stay indoors, and children no longer leave the school bus in fear, Gray said.
Homicides in the projects have also dropped since YMHA first received the drug elimination grant: 11 were reported in 1995; two were reported in 2000.
If the drug elimination program does not receive funding in 2002, the resident patrol will have to disband, and drug dealers and criminals will be back on the streets, Gray said.
"We'll no longer be the eyes and ears of the police in the community," Gray said.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the president does not want organizations like the resident patrol to disband as a result of his budget cuts. The president cut funding for the drug elimination program only to streamline the federal budget, Stanzel said.
Tapping other resources: Money for the drug elimination program had been kept in a separate HUD account in the past. Bush has proposed deleting the account, which contains about $310 million, while increasing the HUD public housing operating fund by $150 million. The president feels organizations like the resident patrol can receive money from other sources, such as the operating fund.
"The effort here is to consolidate and streamline," Stanzel said.
Yet YMHA Executive Director Eugenia Atkinson said she doesn't think the operating fund will contain enough money to pay for the Victory Estates resident patrol. The YMHA operating fund has a balance of $4.9 million this year, she said.
Atkinson said that according to preliminary estimates, federal funding to the YMHA will be reduced by 30 percent under Bush's budget proposal. If the drug elimination program is cut, "it could be a free-for-all" for criminals in Youngstown's housing projects, she said.
Atkinson said the YMHA is encouraging project residents and local officials to write letters to the president and HUD protesting the funding cuts.