Shuttered public housing developments and growing trends in suburban poverty have set the stage for a rise in gang activity outside Chattanooga's urban core, Hamilton County commissioners were told Thursday.
"There are no areas of the community that are immune from the problem. That really showed up in the school data," said Ken Chilton, president of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. The center and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga conducted a six-month study of gangs in Chattanooga.
The Chattanooga Gang Task Force and the study leaders briefed the commission on findings from the 173-page study, which they already have presented to Chattanooga leaders.
Chilton said most gang activity is in Chattanooga's urban areas but the problem is spreading.
"We know from talking with community leaders [that] a lot of times, there was not a lot of forethought into how displaced public housing residents might affect certain neighborhoods," he said. "We have heard that it does indeed create new tensions and escalates potential violence in those neighborhoods -- that you've taken gang rivals and put them together."
County schools -- even elementary schools -- are home to early gang activity, the group stressed, and more resources are needed to help identify at-risk youths at earlier ages. Barbara Medley, director of UTC's Center for Applied Social Research, recommended that school curriculums bring in more vocational training and apprenticeships for students who don't go straight to college.
"These young people want to be able to take advantage of those [new local] jobs, but they don't feel like they're getting the preparation to do so immediately after high school," she said.
After the presentation, Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he had decided to appoint Commissioner Greg Beck to represent the body on the anti-gang task force steering committee. Former Commissioner Mitch McClure previously had held the post.
Beck represents District 5, which includes the Summit, Bonny Oaks, Woodmore and Dalewood neighborhoods. He said he has "many ideas to bring to the table" drawn from more than 30 years of working with at-risk youth and jobs training programs for gang members, along with his work as a Hamilton County corrections officer and a City Court officer.
"I came to realize a long time ago that a gang member actually left somebody's home, going by somebody's church, on the way to somebody's school," Beck said.
"To me, those are the three entities of making a solid citizen. I'm going to be pushing on some way to reach the home. Because that's the root."
In the past year, Beck said, he attended the funeral of a gang member, whose family laid gang colors and paraphernalia in the casket and formed the deceased man's fingers into a gang sign on his chest.
"That came from the parents," he said.