There’s a grim trend tucked into St. Louis’ 2017 homicide statistics: More than half of the victims are black males under the age of 29 and close to half of those suspected of doing the shootings are in the same age range.
It illustrates a stark reality in the city’s crime-ridden neighborhoods. Officials with the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment say employment and education are an answer to reducing the number of young people killed. But those who have made connections with the city’s youth say there’s more to be done.
“At that age, it’s kind of like they’re left out to the world,” said Carlos Ball, who runs a city program known as Workforce High School that gives young people a chance to earn their high school diplomas. “And when they’re left out to the world with nothing to do, it leaves nothing but a lot of bad things for them to get into.
“If we could just open a door for some positivity to come through, we can kind of like remove them from those situations and from those circumstances.”
One of the people who Ball says offers opportunities is Alice Prince, who was just appointed the director of the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE), which runs educational, employment and mentoring programs.
Prince has started close to a dozen programs over the past eight years geared toward 16- to 24-year-olds who are most susceptible to gun violence. That includes Prison to Prosperity, which provides job training for young people getting out St. Louis’ jails. She also has played a major role in developing YouthBuild and Workforce High School, two programs that allow high school dropouts to train for construction careers or finish their high school diplomas.
After watching more than 10,000 people go through her programs, many of which are based in SLATE’s downtown offices, Prince also links the proliferance of violence among St. Louis’ youth with a lack of opportunity.
“Our system has failed them,” Prince told St. Louis Public Radio. “Our education system has failed them. Our judicial system has failed them. Our justice system has failed them. Our governments just overall, we failed them. We’ve not given them what they need. Right now, we can’t even give them a living wage.
“We can’t even give them access to education, 24 hours a day. But we can give them access to guns and drugs 24 hours a day.”
She added: “Sometimes we talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome. No! It’s not post. It never stopped. It’s continuous-traumatic stress syndrome.”
Prince’s keys to avoiding gun violence
For Prince, education and employment are critical to keep young people from fatally shooting someone or being killed themselves. The people she works with want a job or a degree, she said, it’s just that violence can get in the way.
“Sometimes they can’t see it past the gunshots, right?” Prince said. “Sometimes their ears have become deaf because of the rattling gunshots, right? Sometimes they become blind because of the bloodshed that they see. Sometimes their hearts become so cold because of all the people that they’ve lost and let them down. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want better.”
For the most part, the percentage of young people killed in St. Louis has remained steady since Prince started at SLATE in July 2008. In 2009, roughly 57 percent of homicide victims were 29 or younger, a figure that jumped to nearly 60 percent in 2010 and 2015. But last year, it dropped to 45 percent, and this year’s, as of Aug. 8, is 52 percent.
One of the people committed to “wanting better” is Gladius Green, who is enrolled in Workforce High School. The 17-year-old says some of the people she knows that are 16 or younger are in gangs or regularly post pictures of themselves on Facebook holding guns.
“To me, it makes me work harder,” Green said. “Because you don’t want your family to be there forever. You want to go somewhere where it’s peace, no violence, no crimes. Somewhere where you and your family can enjoy.”
Prince said city officials need to get out of their offices and go directly into neighborhoods with high crime rates. She recently started a program called “Employment Pop-Up Shops,” where city officials go to places with high crime rates, such as the Wells-Goodfellow or Bevo neighborhoods, to tell residents about employment opportunities.
Prince said SLATE employees plan to go to churches, barbershops and street corners to connect young people with jobs. She also said her agency can prepare job applicants for interviews and provide mentors who are available around the clock for guidance.
Roughly $4 million in state money for youth summer jobs are helping fund some of Prince’s efforts, while others are funded with grants. Investing in employment, Prince said, is “one of the single most important things that cities, communities, counties should provide those their residents.”
“When my neighbor is doing better, when my neighbor has a job, I’m doing better,” she said.
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