Chattanooga city officials made their case before the city council Tuesday about Mayor Berke's proposal to hire three "re-entry navigators" to help provide support services through the Department of Youth and Family Development.
The agency has been moving toward a case management model over the last several years that connects families with resources to help them reach positions of long-term stability despite facing conditions of poverty and gang violence in their communities. Employees in Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's office are hoping to structure support services for gang members, families and at-risk youth around these new navigators.
As proposed, two navigators would work with adults in the Office of Family Empowerment division of the Department of Youth and Family Development, while the third would work with teens. A total of $245,000 has been proposed to pay for the three positions, with $172,442 allocated for the adult navigators and $72,558 for the teen navigator.
"[The Office of Family Empowerment] provides holistic wraparound support to families by providing the tools and resources to help families achieve self-sufficiency rather than focusing on bill payment and one-time emergency services," said Rachel Howard, office director.
She said the addition of the navigators is an expansion of the social services component of the Violence Reduction Initiative, an effort to combat violence by focusing on the individuals who are driving it.
This proposal comes nearly six months after the city council chose not to vote on a two-year contract with Fathers to the Fatherless to operate as a clearinghouse for support services, effectively shutting off city funding for those services.
Authorities have told validated gang members for years that they will help those gang members build productive lives if they're willing to put down the guns, but if they choose to continue, they will bear the full weight of the law.
Under this model, law enforcement, court officials and other entities will refer individuals to Troy Rogers, the city's public safety coordinator. Rogers then will consult with them and potentially hand off their cases to the navigators, who will work over the next several months to connect them with much-needed resources such as job training.
"In order to participate in the program, the individual must be a validated gang member, [associated with a gang] or a target of focused deterrence efforts and be vetted or referred by the public safety coordinator," Howard said.
Howard also said her office is determined to achieve positive, measurable outcomes by working closely with the many agencies that provide services to the people they work with and following up on those cases until they are self-sufficient.
"We collaborate with a huge variety of partners in our community to get things done for our families," she said. "We don't do, 'here are some numbers, call them and good luck.' We do warm handoffs. Anytime we connect somebody to a resource we make sure we're connecting them to that resource."
Joe Hunter, program coordinator for Youth and Family Development teen empowerment centers, said the third navigator would work with him at the centers throughout the city.
He said his teen empowerment program has already netted 25 teenagers and in just six months he's seen significant attitudinal and behavioral changes in those kids, many of whom are most at risk of falling into a gang or criminal activity.
"We have found that the teenagers wanted something, and they've taken ownership of this," he said. "It's working. The community loves it and all the staff has engaged and helped us do it."
Hunter said he's been mentoring and working with the kids on everything from etiquette to conflict resolution skills, and principals, teachers and parents have said he and his coworkers have broken through in a new way.
Now, he said, he needs more boots on the ground to build on what they've already accomplished so they can continue showing kids through example that there are alternatives to violence and gangs.
"That's what we're trying to do is produce productive citizens," he said. "We can't do it all. We are thankful for the support — we need more."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.