Photo caption: Sorya Svy, executive director of SafeFutures Youth Center (SFYC), points to the names of graduating students memorialized on plaques displayed in the classroom, said the center focuses on providing education to at risk youth. The center’s program has had a 95 percent graduation rate in recent years. Photo credit: Travis Quezon.
A shooting at a South Seattle house on February 20 sent two men to the hospital with gunshot wounds. The Seattle Police Department is currently investigating whether the shooting was gang-related.
The incident keeps alive an ongoing concern for Seattle’s lawmakers and community leaders — a dual effort to reach consensus on gun safety as well as address the city’s continuing battle with gang violence.
There were 766 gang-related incidents reported in 2012, according to the King County Sheriff annual crime report. The Sheriff’s Office also stated last year that there was a 165 percent increase in gang-related crime since 2005. As many as 10,000 gang members are estimated to live in King County, as part of an estimated 140 active criminal street gangs.
Among King County youth aged 15 to 24, firearms are involved in almost one in five (18 percent) of total deaths, according to the King County Public Health Department. For black youth, where homicide is the leading cause of death, firearms account for four in 10 (41 percent) deaths.
Whether or not gun control legislation is the key to curbing gang violence is currently up for debate. But for those who work closely with the city’s most vulnerable, the most effective solution is simple: Provide family services and resources that offer Seattle’s high-risk youth a path away from gang life and into a contributing place in the community.
Sorya Svy, executive director of SafeFutures Youth Center (SFYC), spent the last 16 years working with gang youth from West Seattle to White Center and Rainier Beach.
SFYC was founded in 1996 as a city-operated program targeting at-risk Southeast Asian youth and low income families in Seattle. SFYC became a nonprofit in June and expanded its services to Laotian, Mien, East African, African American, Native American/Alaskan Native, Latino, Pacific Islander and other populations.
Svy said services for Seattle’s Southeast Asian community were largely non-existent until mainstream media began to cover drive-by shootings involving Southeast Asian gangs in the late ’90s.
“[SFYC and other nonprofits at the time] made a concerted effort to provide services to help youth be productive, to become a part of the greater society,” Svy said. “It started with basic things like addressing basic needs so they don’t have to deal drugs, addressing the home life.”
Today, SFYC provides a broad range of multilingual services, including an after-school program, gender-specific mentoring and leadership development.
Youth at high risk of gang involvement, academic failure and juvenile justice involvement have access to intensive one-on-one case management services.
Success for the youth who take part in SFYC programs comes as they grow into becoming a resource for the community, Svy explained.
“In general, especially for the high risk youth, being accepted as being a contributor in the community is a huge part of their self-esteem building,” Svy said. “[The gang youth SFYC has worked with] were not recognized by the community, or they were ignored, or the community was scared of them. So one of the things we really focused on was to tell them, ‘Hey let’s go out and do community service — not because you owe it, but because there’s a great opportunity. Let the community know that you’re a part of this community and can become a positive part of this community.’ ”
Svy said that gang activity involving Southeast Asian gangs today may not seem as prevalent because gangs are more spread out across King County due to gentrification and greater mobility among gang youth.
“A lot of families that are not able to afford housing in Seattle are moving to cheaper, lower-cost rent in South King County, in particular Burien, Kent, Renton, Tukwila, Sea Tac and farther down south as well,” Svy said. “By moving out there, there are very limited resources, especially resources that have the cultural competency and relevancy for the communities we serve.”
Svy said that despite being spread out geographically, the gang violence is still prevalent today. And guns are readily available.
“We knew the majority of the youth that we worked with, especially if they were heavily gang-involved, had access to weapons, pretty much at all times,” Svy said. “But we seldom ever saw any kind of weapons at the center, and a lot of that has to do with investing funds into programs and into prevention and in keeping the kids away from violence in general.”
Washington state has weak gun laws that help feed the illegal gun market, allow the sale of guns without background checks, and allow the sale of military-style assault weapons, according to the Brady Campaign, an organization whose mission is to educate the public on gun safety and lobbies for stricter gun laws. The Brady Campaign gave Washington state a score of 17 points out of a total of 100 for gun safety.
In the fight for stricter gun control, Syv said we shouldn’t lose sight of the effectiveness of preventative services.
“I think front-end services, intervention and prevention, do a lot more to prevent gun violence or violence in general,” Svy said. “What we’ve seen from the many years we have worked with youth who have been involved in gangs or some kind of violence is that guns and weapons seem to be very easy to access. But if you’re able to work with them at the front end and make them feel better about being a part of society and the community, the gun play becomes a lot less relevant.”
Syv described working gang youth who said they did not want to be involved in gun violence and felt like they at first didn’t have a choice apart from gang life.
“If you eliminate the need for the gun, then there is less likely to be use for the gun,” Svy said. “[With] quite a few of the youth we talked to, they don’t want to use the gun nor do they want to be a victim of gun violence. They [took part in violence] because they had to. So if you eliminate that or at least reduce that risk of having to — at least from the perspective of the youth that we’ve worked with — there’s definitely a less of a risk of gun violence being out there.”
“Don’t get me wrong, if [guns] are not out there in the wrong hands, it certainly would be helpful,” Svy added. “Even though we are prevention services, there are times when you need suppression. But we want to make sure the resources aren’t just dedicated to preventing gun access.”
Svy said it can be difficult for lawmakers to find that balance in addressing gun safety and gang violence.
“It has to go hand in hand,” Svy said. “If you’re focusing on eliminating gun access, you also need to work on the prevention side of it. … I don’t think it could go one way or the other completely. Prevention has a more cost-effective way of saving the system money in the long run as well as keeping the youth away from the violence and headed toward something positive.”
Case in point: a bill being heard by the Washington State Legislature, House Bill 1096, would impose mandatory sentences on any juvenile caught carrying a gun illegally. While the measure might potentially keep guns out of the hands of gang youth, there are economic and legal ramifications to consider. Both the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) oppose the bill as it stands.
The NRA has stated that while it supports the intent of HB 1096, it creates the potential for being too severe on youth who, under the right circumstances, can legally carry a gun, such as at a shooting range.
The ACLU stated that mandating 10 days in juvenile detention would have adverse effects on youth who would be exposed to other criminal youth and gang members while detained. The ACLU also said the bill would add $1 million in parole and jail costs — money that would be better spent on prevention and other services.
Seattle Councilman Bruce Harrell, Chair of the council’s public safety, civil rights and technology committee, said the key to finding a balance in providing both effective services and gun safety measures lies in allowing for flexible, sustainable gun laws on the local level.
In December, Harrell called for a special committee to explore the option of filing a statewide Initiative to allow larger cities like Seattle to modify state law, which he said does not allow Seattle to regulate firearms in any meaningful way.
The law states: “Local laws and ordinances that are inconsistent with, more restrictive than, or exceed the requirements of state law shall not be enacted and are preempted and repealed, regardless of the nature of the code, charter, or home rule status of such city, town, county, or municipality.”
The initiative, Harrell explained, puts the gun safety issue in the hands of the people and out of the hands of lobbyists.
The statewide Initiative, if passed, would require mandatory gun safety training for concealed carry license permits, handgun trigger locks, gun safes and gun data collection. The number of signatures required for a statewide initiative to put a gun safety measure on the ballot in 2013 is 241,153.
In addition to allowing for gun safety measures at the local level, Harrell said the community must reach out to its youth by providing them a roadmap away from gang life and offering them opportunities to give back to their neighborhoods in a positive way.
Youth who seek out gang membership are driven by a desire to be respected by peers and a fear that they won’t be safe unless they join a gang, Harrell said.
“We can meet those needs in other ways,” Harrell said. “Most of them just don’t have the resources.”