Crime in Flint is down, but violence is still taking a big toll on young people

Jul 30, 2014

Officer Jesse Carpenter, left, and staff of the Haskell Youth Center in Flint.
Officer Jesse Carpenter, left, and staff of the Haskell Youth Center in Flint.
Credit Haskell Center

The Haskell Youth Center is on the front lines of violence prevention in Flint. They don’t use a complicated formula; there are just plenty of positive activities and positive adults.

On any given day there are about 200 kids spread throughout the game room, the cafeteria, and a gym where the basketball games never seem to stop. 

Haskell is a refuge of sorts. Violent crime is pervasive in this city, with almost 800 such crimes reported since the beginning of the year. That’s pretty extreme. But just as true outside of Flint is the effect violence can have on young people.

"It feels like a storm that's always around – that won't go away," says 18-year-old Rico Colfer. He's been coming to Haskell since he was nine years old. He now works at the center when he's not in school, studying for what he hopes will be a career in graphic design. 

Colfer says his house has been broken into three times. He says the stress takes a toll on him and on those around him. "Every time it happens it hurts me because I see my mom cry," he says. "She works hard to get us the best stuff to have, and they just come and take it."

Places like the Haskell Center help keep kids out of harm’s way, but it can also put them in touch with emotional support and mentorship.

Seventeen-year-old Diamond Howell spends a lot of time at a center similar to Haskell across town. That's where she met Gary Jones, a program coordinator with the Boys and Girls Club, who himself encountered a lot of violence as a young person in Flint.

Jones may need to step in and support Howell as she comes up on a tough anniversary next week. It will mark one year since her older brother’s death. He was shot. "You know, this isn't the life I wanted to live. I didn't choose this," she says. "But, everything happens for a reason," she continues. "I'm trying to move forward."

Jones says young people don't often begin to process the effect violence has on them until they become older. He uses his own experience as an example of this phenomenon, recounting how he was shot at three times by the age of 17. "I kind of accepted this as part of my reality," said Jones. "That’s what violence felt like to me. You’re always in react mode." 

Emotionally, Howell carries a lot on her teenage shoulders, but she is resilient. She talks easily about her future, including her plan to become a dentist. Howell gets visibly anxious and flustered when she talks about her little brother. She worries how he is dealing with the violence around him because he tends to have a hard time talking about it and acts out. 

Officer Jesse Carpenter feels similarly anxious about how hundreds of kids are handling her environment. Carpenter, a Flint native, is a mentor and protector of hundreds of kids as director of the Haskell Center. 

Carpenter has been a Flint city police officer for 18 years. He is the only Flint police officer dedicated to youth violence prevention. Carpenter clearly feels empathy and sadness for the toll violence takes on the young people around him.

"For 11 years before I started this program, I stood over the dead bodies of our youth," he says. "I was holding friends and family back, knowing that I wanted to hug the deceased as well."

There are lots of things that can help dull the effects of violence on young people or stabilize neighborhoods. For one, there are places like the Haskell Center, important in the lives of so many Flint families.

But Jones, Carpenter, and other experts agree fixing the impact of a lifetime of exposure to violence often requires more intensive interventions.

We'll continue our coverage of some of those interventions in the days ahead.

A longer version of this piece will also be broadcast as part of a live call-in show about the effects of violence on young people at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 31.