Partnering with businesses to provide summer jobs and job- shadowing opportunities to at-risk youth would help prevent gang membership, members of a citywide anti-gang committee say.
The idea was one of several discussed at a Friday meeting at Chattanooga City Hall which attracted about 15 community leaders. The group includes members from law enforcement, nonprofits, the judicial system, health care and faith-based community. Attendance was down compared to prior meetings, which have attracted around 20 to 25 people.
The steering committee is set up to orchestrate the city's plan to combat gangs, and is based on a U.S. Department of Justice plan that unites social services to work with local government and other groups to reach at-risk youth rather than rely only on police to arrest gang members after crimes occur.
As part of the plan, an assessment is conducted to measure community awareness and perception of gangs and youth violence, in addition to compiling statistical data.
City and county leaders began meeting more than a year ago to address the growing gang population in Chattanooga. Last year, more than half of the city's homicides were gang related.
Gang membership numbers documented by Chattanooga Police Department show as many as 1,100 members.
Hamilton County Juvenile Judge Suzanne Bailey, said she hopes attention will be extended to younger children who are not yet in gangs.
"I would like to encourage everyone to think of things for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. These are the ones the gangs begin preying on because they are taking these young kids away from school," she said. "They're offering these kids $50 or $100 to stand on the corner while they're making deals over here.
"And when you've got the little ones that young with that kind of influence and that kind of quick money, I would like to think that we're not just talking about jobs, but offering an after-school -- a safe place."
Youths who have arrest records have a more difficult time finding part-time work, said Rob Bradham, vice president of public strategies for Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. Online applications for corporations automatically dump applicants when they state they have an arrest record, he said.
"The folks who might have a criminal record or less skills are being weeded out faster," he said.
It doesn't help that the job market is flooded with highly qualified applicants in the weak economy.
"The question then becomes, how do you get around that? Because it's simple economics, they [employers] want to hire the most-qualified people first."
Bradham said there are training programs in place but with dwindling grants and government dollars, there is more pressure for the private sector to provide those opportunities.