By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
After 23-years of helping African-American youth stay away from gangs, the House of Umoja was forced to close its doors after funding for the program was cut entirely.
The House of Umoja ceased operations on Sept.30, an abrupt end for a gang prevention program that reached over 200 youth, ages 11 to 18, each year through academic support, mental health services, mentor services and basic needs support.
Although the center has operated under the umbrella of Lifeworks NW since 2009, Walter Butler, the director of the program, said they still couldn’t find the resources to help the program remain afloat.
“We’ve been struggling for a long time,” said Butler.
He explained that once Umoja’s board merged with Lifeworks, all private donors seemed to have disappeared. “Everything we do is free, and what we give the kids comes from us,” he said. “We had the biggest life skills network in Portland Public schools, but now, they want us to defer the youth to other programs.”
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention selected Portland to be one of just four communities to share a federal grant to find ways to prevent gang and gun violence, which has claimed the lives of nine youth this year within the city.
The five-year $4.5 million grant that was awarded to Multnomah County’s Department of Public Health is part of the Striving to Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere grant, which will provide the county with $225,000 per year for five-years to lead a number of groups to come up with new programs to prevent youth violence within high-risk communities in north and northeast Portland.
The grant funds are supposed to increase youth services throughout the county, but supporters of House of Umoja and other community activists and youth mentors are asking, what about the successful programs that already exist?
Tina Glover, former program director of the House of Umoja’s culturally-specific intervention services, believes the more help that exists for youth within the community the better. She said, however, there’s been a shift in how people are addressing gang culture in the past couple of years.
Glover said when youth are diverted to other programs it doesn’t factor in the lost cultural support the House of Umoja was able to provide.
“In February I was informed the contract would be changing from more prevention to intervention services,” she said. “Instead of being out at schools and educating families and supporting youth from becoming involved in gangs, it is now, do you have a family member involved in a gang, incarcerated, or on probation—if so, we will provide services to you.”
“We have gone from prevention to intervention, and there needs to be both,” she said.
In the past, youth who had the potential to be involved in a gang were referred to a program such as House of Umoja, which would make sure they had safe places to live. and their families were getting the support that they needed.
She said there was a priority on building cultural pride to offset a belief that African-Americans, through the contact with other cultures, had lost a sense of pride.
Glover called changes from prevention to intervention reactionary, like fixing a wound by putting a band aid on it without cleaning the injury first.
“Unless we can come at the issue from all directions—eventually it will get infected again,” she said. “Yes, there is a need for prevention services. And yes, there is a need for intervention like there is a need for outreach. But the three need to co-exist.”
“What we do is work with kids on the streets,” he said. “The closing down of House of Umoja is a travesty for the community.”