Longtime outreach program for at-risk youth gains steam again
Clergy and members of the Boston Police School Unit gathered in a circle, holding hands, their heads bowed as the Rev. Mark Scott led them in prayer shortly before 6 p.m. one recent Thursday.
Afterward, they dispersed into three groups from an office inside Boston Latin Academy, taking with them a list of young people who may be in trouble at school or are at risk of becoming involved in gangs. Each of three clergy members was paired with two police officers, and they spent the next hour knocking on doors trying to talk to parents and counsel their sons and daughters.
This is Operation Homefront.
“You’re not coming to point blame, you’re coming to listen, offer concern, and help if you can,” said Scott, the associate pastor at Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester. “This is effective, if we can really have a conversation with parents and kids.”
Operation Homefront has been credited for connecting troubled young men and women and their families to much-needed resources — and has encouraged some to change their behavior for the better. The coalition is in the midst of a revival now after it was hit with a one-two punch earlier in the year: Its former director was charged in March with attempting to kill a young man he was mentoring, and that was preceded by an unusually harsh winter that made getting out on the streets difficult.
“When this happened with Shaun Harrison, it was either someone needs to step up and lead this or we risk losing one of the city’s tools,” Scott said. “It gave us a chance to pause and let’s think about what we’re doing.”
Harrison, a self-proclaimed minister and antiviolence advocate, is in custody awaiting trial on charges of allegedly trying to murder an English High School student on a Roxbury street in March. He had been the program’s director since 2011.
Protocols put in place after Harrison’s arrest state that only ordained clergy are allowed to participate in Operation Homefront. Aspiring participants are now required to undergo a criminal and sex offender records check and provide a reference from their congregation’s leadership. Training sessions are now held every week for the clergy, Scott said.
Scott said he is working to expand and further diversify its clergy base, which now includes an imam. The program has about a dozen clergy members, said Scott, adding that he is looking to enlist some women. The volunteer job is demanding, he said, and requires late hours.
“Operation Homefront is caring adults that want to make sure every child avoids negative influences,” said Jeffrey L. Brown, associate pastor of the Twelfth Baptist Church and one of the program’s founding members.
Established in 1998, Operation Homefront was launched by clergy in collaboration with the Boston Police Department’s Youth Strike Force unit in response to reports that Crip, Blood, and Folk gangs were forming in city schools.
And civic leaders say the program has been effective in keeping many young people on the right track, by helping with challenges they face in their home lives.
“[You] get a chance to see where that individual came from, what were the struggles that young person was facing in their own lives,” said J. Larry Mayes, a longtime member of the Menino administration and the vice president of programs for Catholic Charities. “Young people who get into trouble were not born on the moon or on another side of the sun.”
At times, the smell of marijuana wafts outside of a young person’s home, parents may suffer from drug and alcohol abuse, and occasionally parents themselves are gang leaders.
“We see kids that are not really getting the support they need within the home,” said Boston Police Detective Janine Busby, with the School Police Unit. “We try to get in the middle of it and help them out.”
Most parents — about 70 percent of them — welcome the help.
In Dorchester, a mother of four said she doesn’t know what to do about her 15-year-old son’s behavior. He stays out late and refuses to go to school. She has called the police following several arguments that turned physical.
The mother, whose name the Globe is withholding to protect the family’s privacy, wants help — badly.
“I don’t want him to have a criminal record,” said the woman, who moved to Boston from Cape Verde 26 years ago for a better life. “What can I do to put him in the right direction? We already lost one son; I don’t want to lose another one.”
The woman said her teenage stepson died in 2012, the result of an apparent suicide, and her son’s father died in 2008 of an asthma attack. Her son’s behavior began to change a year after her stepson’s death, she said.
Last month, the Rev. Richard “Doc” Conway and two members of the School Police Unit stopped by her home, but her son was not there. The mother said Conway and the officers promised to return. It would be their third time stopping by.
“You keep trying,” Conway said. “Either people will accept the offer or they won’t, but you don’t give up.”
Clergy and police conduct home visits once a week and meet annually with 400 to 600 youths, between the ages of 6 and 18.
Twenty-one officers within the Boston Police Department’s School Police Unit are dedicated to the program, including three former teachers. The officers are racially and linguistically diverse.
Referrals are made by Boston Public Schools for reasons that include bullying, stealing, carrying a weapon, inappropriate touching, or hanging with the wrong crowd. After a visit, the family is referred to YouthConnect, a prevention program for at-risk youth under the Boys & Girls Club.
The group refrains from visiting young people with criminal records or who are gang-involved because they are focused on reaching youths before they get to that point.
“We know the crisis usually starts at home,” said Officer William “Bill” Willis. “A lot of times the parents are overwhelmed and they don’t know what to do. In this unit, we try to keep the kids out of the criminal justice system.”