Davis questions impact of city's streetworkers

Boston's top cop has raised questions on the effectiveness of the city's streetworkers, pointing to the need nowadays for background checks and different hours as potentially detrimental.

At a meeting last month in the Area C-11 police station, City Councillor Charles Yancey pressed Police Commissioner Ed Davis on the matter, arguing that the city needs to be deploying more streetworkers and engaging at-risk youth, a cause that the Dorchester pol held a recent hearing on at City Hall.

Yancey wants the police department to divert money from properties forfeited in criminal cases to hire as many as 300 more youth and streetworkers to reach out to the city's hundreds of thousands of students, particularly those dropping out.

Davis appeared tepid to the idea, noting that the streetworkers, brought under the auspices of the city and its Centers for Youth and Families (CYF), are now required to go through criminal background checks, weeding out former gang members who know the streets and the kids on them.

"The streetworker program was extremely effective when it first started here, mainly because the people that were hired had credibility," he said. "You also need them where and when they are needed. Because they effectively became part of the city workforce, the very people we need couldn't be hired because they had to be CORI checked."

Davis also noted the streetworkers are unionized, "so now they work 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and that's not the time we need them on the street."

In an interview this week, Yancey said the job can't fall to police officers alone. "We have to ask the question, what services are we providing these young people?" he said. "We should not see the Boston Police Department as the agency."

Adding 300 streetworkers would cost $10 million, Yancey said. He points out that police overtime costs went up to $41 million last year, up from the budgeted $28 million. More streetworkers would cut down on police overtime hours, he contended.

The city currently has 22 streetworkers and four senior streetworkers. That's up from 19 in fiscal year 2006, according to Sandy Holden, spokeswoman for the city's Center for Youth and Families. The agency is looking for four additional streetworkers, eventually bringing the total up to 30.

The program is nationally acclaimed. One of the program's unit managers was one of 10 people to earn an award from the National Child Labor Committee.

Job applicants are required to undergo Criminal Offender Record Information and sex offender registry checks, a year's experience of working with high-risk youth and families in community settings, and a bachelor's degree in social work or counseling.

Local non-profits may be stepping in to fill the perceived gap: St. Mark's Area Main Streets recently hired its own streetworker. The new hire is meeting with local service providers and businesses to get a sense of the neighborhood.

"When the weather gets warmer, she's going to be out on the street," said Dan Larner, the non-profit's executive director.

The non-profit received a $45,000 grant, spread over three years, in October from the Neponset Health Center.

Larner said the crowds of youths standing on the district's street corners can sometimes discourage business when they could be doing "more positive" things with their time.

"We saw this is a great opportunity to start making a difference right away," Larner said.

Managing Editor Bill Forry contributed to this report.