Philly anti-violence activists are hopeful about new funding for prevention efforts

2nd District Councilperson Kenyatta Johnson stands next to Cheick Diawara during the Stand 4 Peace anti gun-violence rally in Love park. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

2nd District Councilperson Kenyatta Johnson stands next to Cheick Diawara during the Stand 4 Peace anti gun-violence rally in Love park. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Anti-violence activists are applauding a funding deal announced Thursday that will see the city spend more than $155 million on programs and initiatives designed to quell the gun violence epidemic, which is putting Philadelphia on pace to set a new single-year record for homicides despite police taking a record number of illegal guns off the street.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s initial budget proposal called for $34 million for anti-violence efforts.

“It’s a great step in the right direction,” said Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of Mothers in Charge, a citywide violence prevention group.

“The city seems to be getting serious about addressing the issue of gun violence,” said Anton Moore, executive director of Unity in the Community.

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The deal, hailed as “historic” by members of City Council, comes less than two weeks after lawmakers urged the Kenney administration to spend an additional $100 million on violence prevention measures. It includes $87 million in existing funding and $68.3 million in new funds for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Though specific details remain scant, the plan is designed to address the epidemic through a variety of strategies, including community empowerment, employment and jobs training, prevention, and safe havens for children and youth.

City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnnson, who strongly advocated for increased anti-violence funding, called the deal a “paradigm shift.”

“We know from past approaches, we can’t arrest our way out of this situation. So at the end of the day, we have to do something different,” said Johnson.

An outline of the deal obtained by WHYY News details some of the planned spending, including a total of $49 million to support grassroots anti-violence organizations, out-of-school programming, and targeted community investment grants.

Another $30 million will go to a pair of violence prevention programs, transitional jobs initiatives, and mental health co-response programs. The sum also includes an undisclosed amount of restored funding to the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Free Library of Philadelphia, which both saw budget cuts during the pandemic.

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There is also money earmarked for workforce development and job training through the Commerce Department, as well the creation of two “curfew centers,” places where unattended juveniles are brought until a parent or guardian picks them up.

The activists who spoke with WHYY were especially pleased to see that millions more will be going to grassroots anti-violence groups, whose leaders often rely on a combination of fundraising, donations, and their personal bank accounts to stay afloat.

Those organizations are critical to any plan to reduce gun violence because they have direct ties to the communities where the epidemic has the most impact, the activists said, and need to be treated that way, whether the group is a household name or not.

“Just because the name may not be out there … does not mean that the organization is not working,” said Terrez McCleary, founder of Moms Bonded By Grief.

In August, McCleary’s group is taking dozens of children affected by gun violence on a three-day retreat in the Poconos, where they’ll have the chance to speak to a trauma counselor, as well as process their feelings with parents and kids who are intimately familiar with the frustration and grief that come with having a loved one shot and killed.

McCleary, who started the organization after her daughter was fatally shot in South Philadelphia in 2009, said requests keep coming in for the nascent program, forcing her to consider limiting capacity this year and putting out a call for next summer.

“It’s getting too expensive,” she said.

Moore understands. His group raised funds to launch a training program for at-risk young men to learn carpentry. The 20-week academy, which will pay participants a stipend, will also tackle mental health issues and provide mentorship opportunities, something that gave a younger Moore a sense of direction while his father was incarcerated.

Moore said any kind of outreach requires funding, especially if it’s paired with the promise of social services or a slot in a job training program, things that can help entice people to consider making positive changes that could remove them from the crosshairs.

“No one is just gonna show up and say, ‘Hey, I’m at-risk,’” said Moore. “We have to go out into those neighborhoods, get down and dirty, roll our sleeves up and help those people. That takes money.”

It’s unclear how funding for community groups will be disbursed under the new deal. Those details — and others about the plan — will likely become clearer after the budget is passed, which is expected to happen next week.

But Tyrique Glasgow, who leads the Young Chances Foundation in South Philadelphia, said those details are everything. The additional funding is promising, he said, but it’s nothing without a strategy ensuring that the money is spent in a way that translates to real, measurable change in a city saddled with unrelenting gun violence.

More than 950 people have been shot in the city so far this year.

“I wanna see lives saved now,” said Glasgow.

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