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In East Harlem and the Lower East Side, African-American and Hispanic youth triumph over challenges with help from AFJ.
Avenues for Justice’s central challenge is to halt the revolving-door cycle of incarceration and poverty for youthful offenders in two NYC neighborhoods– East Harlem and the Lower East Side.
A study conducted by a University of Buffalo faculty member found that nearly 75% of inmates in New York State prisons come from seven neighborhoods in New York City – two of those neighborhoods being our service areas, East Harlem and the Lower East Side.
Black and Latino Males: Fighting the Trends
In 2010, the New York City Mayor’s Office published the Young Men’s Initiative report, which presented bleak statistics for young Latino and Black men.
Compared to young Asian and White males, Blacks and Latinos have a 50% higher chance of growing up in poverty and an even higher chance of losing their homes. Virtually 100% of foster care children are Black or Hispanic. They are two times more likely to drop out of high school. If a youth is suspended from school, or arrested, or put in jail or murdered, chances are as high as 90% that he is a young Black or Latino male. When or if he reaches adulthood, he has a 60% higher chance of being unemployed than his White and Asian peers.
This is the landscape we deal with at Avenues for Justice. Most of our kids are Black or Latino males from the Lower East Side and East Harlem who don’t have the foundation of parents coming home at night to put food on the table. No one cheers them on at school or soccer games. The only people opening doors for them are drug dealers and gang members, and eventually these doors lead to being arrested.
The Challenges: Poverty, Broken Families, Failing Education and Drugs
Though many people in cities like New York enjoy the benefits of wealth and privilege, this is a distant myth for those who live in poor, often Spanish-speaking, neighborhoods -- the places where wealthy adults rarely, if ever, go. In these troubled areas, where recent drops in the crime rate are not apparent, teenagers still see crime as the most effective, and attractive, way to get ahead. Despite the many differences among the kids who are helped by AFJ, their personal crises almost always arise from four of the most persistent urban problems:
- Concentrated Poverty: In East Harlem, people live in poverty at a rate equal to more than twice that of the city as a whole. Despite recent gentrification, life for many on the Lower East Side isn’t much better. In fact, the Lower East Side contains one of the country's most concentrated areas of public housing, extending literally for miles. Statistically, poverty adversely affects the young, and some children spend a lifetime trying to overcome its effects.
- Broken Families: A single mother heads approximately 23% of households in East Harlem. In public housing on the Lower East Side, the statistics are similar. All too often, children are born to a mother who is little more than a child herself -- compelled for economic reasons to live with her own mother and an ever-changing cast of boyfriends and relatives. Within the walls of an overcrowded apartment, it can often be difficult to get a good night’s sleep or a balanced meal.
- Failing Education: Although the city school system has improved, it is not surprising that poor neighborhoods lag behind. While graduation rates for the city as a whole have reached 70%, schools on the Lower East Side average 50%, and in East Harlem the number is 54%. When you subtract one or two better schools from the equation, graduation rates on the Lower East Side hover around 20%.
- Drugs: Even around the corner from the posh new hotels and bars on the Lower East Side, you can find it all: crack cocaine, heroin, and angel dust. And in East Harlem, the drug trade is even more active, with such side effects as gangs, prostitution, guns, and 12-year-olds who can make $500 a day if they join the drug trade.
Together, these daunting factors create an endless cycle of crime and incarceration, as U.S. prison rates soar way beyond those of any other country in the world. Many poor families -- where a father, uncle, and son may all be incarcerated -- now accept prison as a standard rite of passage. In fact, most juvenile offenders have a close relative who has set the pattern by going to prison. There is, however, a way to break the cycle -- as Avenues for Justice proves every day.