A budget request for Memphis Gun Down was shot down last week in a Memphis City Council meeting in favor of a smaller budget for the youth violence prevention program.
The city program that has shown success in reducing youth gun violence in certain target areas of Frayser and South Memphis had about a quarter of its budget request slashed.
Representatives from Memphis Gun Down, an initiative established by the city's 2011 Bloomberg Philanthropies grant funds, approached the Memphis City Council last week to request $250,000 to keep the program going. But the council ended up passing a resolution to cut their budget by $62,000.
"We are very appreciative of what they have given us, and it will still allow us to move forward, but it will cut us short on a program manager," said Memphis Gun Down Director Bishop Mays. "And we won't be able to robustly pursue other models and strategies that we were looking at. We may not be able to expand our program to as many other parts of the city as we had planned."
The cuts were proposed by Councilman Harold Collins, who thought that Memphis Gun Down's mission sounded too much like that of the mayor's Memphis Youth Ambassador (MAP) program. But other than working with at-risk youth, the two programs actually don't have much in common, according to Mays.
MAP is a year-round program that helps more than 400 kids in grades 10 through 12 develop life-building skills and college and career readiness. Memphis Gun Down focuses on youth violence, and they work specifically with gang-involved youth through programs like the 901 Bloc Squad, a team composed of people who were formerly caught up in street life and who now mentor at-risk youth.
Gun Down also offers midnight basketball games for youth who might otherwise be getting into trouble late at night. And they run a hospital violence intervention program, where mentors meet with young adults who end up in the hospital following violent incidents in the hopes of helping to turn those kids around.
"What the Office of Youth Services is doing [with MAP] is needed. They are able to expose kids to positive alternatives for their futures, like going to college. But we're different," Mays said. "They don't have persons who are directly connecting with gang-involved youth. We're reaching out to that segment, and to compare us just isn't fair.
There's also a chance that Collins misunderstood exactly what Memphis Gun Down does.
"I said, 'You tell me the number of guns that you have taken off the street since your program started.' And the director [Mays] said, 'We don't take guns off the street.' And I said, 'Well, how could you have a Gun Down program if you don't take guns off the street?'" said Collins, explaining an exchange between he and Mays in last week's council meeting.
Mays said Memphis Gun Down focuses on preventing youth from picking up guns in the first place.
"Getting guns off the street is more of a function of the police. There are armed individuals out there, and the police are armed. They're equipped to do that," Mays said. "We're not law enforcement officers. We're trying to change the desire to pick up that gun."
Earlier this week, Mayor A C Wharton praised Memphis Gun Down's success in an article he wrote for CNN: "We will always have more work to do, but we are seeing results."
And according to crime stats, it looks as though Memphis Gun Down is on track to reduce crime among teens and young adults. From 2012 to 2014, murder, aggravated assault, and robbery were down 23 percent for all ages and 21 percent among people under age 24 in their target area in a portion of Frayser. Those same crimes decreased by 25 percent for all ages and 55 percent for people under 24 in their focus area in South Memphis.
"We're providing them with positive alternatives, like Summer Night Lights [a program that provides youth with recreational activities like art classes, pizza parties, and dancing on summer nights], which we believe has impacted the desire to commit gun crimes in those areas," Mays said.