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Last May, when Philadelphia won a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to develop innovative solutions for urban challenges, the idea was to bring in entrepreneurs to address urban issues such as public safety.
In the past year, however, other issues have overshadowed safety. Twenty-four public schools closed due to funding shortages. Philadelphia’s unemployment rate, which stood at 8.4 percent as of December, remained the highest in the region. More than 26 percent of Philadelphians still live in poverty. And while violent crime has decreased by 11 percent over the same period last year, I don’t believe we’re safer as a city.
If 1 in 4 Philadelphians is impoverished, and nearly 1 in 10 is unemployed, we’re not safer. If public schools are underfunded and education is not our priority, we’re not safer. If we live in a place where poverty lives next door to affluence, we’re not safer. When unemployment is left to stare longingly at prosperity, we’re not safer.
We will only be safer when we seek to do more than reduce the number of violent crimes on a stat sheet. True safety will only come when we seek to break down the barriers that separate us.
That’s part of the mission of Village Defense, one of 10 startups currently working to address public safety under the city’s Bloomberg grant. As one of the companies in the first cohort of entrepreneurs, Village Defense has received a $10,000 stipend to develop its idea. And if the company’s idea is selected to become a pilot, Village Defense will receive a share of $100,000 to implement its program, according to Story Bellows, Director of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.
“We’re looking at devising new ways for government to work with entrepreneurs on public safety,” Bellows told me.
That’s what makes the idea behind Village Defense so interesting. It’s not necessarily a new idea. Rather, it’s a new take on an old idea.
Modeled after the Amber Alert system for missing children, Village Defense is a round the clock communication system that utilizes email, cell phones, landlines, and signage to allow neighbors to communicate when there’s trouble.
On average, it costs about $2,100 per year, per neighborhood, according to co-founder Sharath Mekala.
The idea has worked in 70 neighborhoods in and around Atlanta, Mekala said. The island of Bermuda has adopted it, as well. If Philadelphia adopts the approach, ours will be the first city to do so.
Funny thing is, Mekala, 35, never set out to start a company. He just wanted people to stop breaking in his house.
“I bought my first house in 2006 on land [where public housing previously stood] on the west side of Atlanta,” Mekala told me in an interview.
“There were a lot of successful, upwardly mobile people in the community, but we all started being affected by crime in the area, and since it was a new development, nobody knew each other. There was a big divide between the people single-family homes and people who lived in apartments—the renters. The people who were also disconnected were the seniors. None of us were really talking, so on the outside, it looked like this great neighborhood, and on the inside, nobody worked together, and we had this common problem with crime.”
Mekala would hear from neighbors that someone’s home had been burglarized. He would hear from seniors that kids were sneaking into the senior apartment building to get to the vending machines. But since people who lived in apartments were separated from those who lived in single homes, and seniors were separated from both, there was no ongoing communication.
“Criminals were taking advantage of the fact that we weren’t talking to each other,” Mekala said.
Things came to a head when Mekala got a call from his alarm company, and came home to find that his door had been kicked in. His home was ransacked. He wasn’t surprised. The crime in his neighborhood was such that he knew it was coming. His neighbor knew it, too.
“While I’m cleaning up, my neighbor Kevin comes to my house and says, ‘Sharath, I think I saw the people that broke into your home. I saw some people casing your property.’
“It was kind of this moment that I had where I realized, ‘We have to so something about this.’”
He partnered with Nathan Black, now 27, to create Village Defense, and they spent the first year working out the bugs in their approach. One of the things they realized early on was that they would have to listen to the occupants of the neighborhoods where they implemented their approach, rather than coming in as if they had all the answers.
In Philadelphia, that has meant talking to residents in neighborhoods in North Philly, and realizing that in some cases, the neighbors already have communication systems in place. In other cases, it has meant finding the neighborhood entity through which they will work in order to both implement and pay for the system.
Ultimately, Mekala sees the Philadelphia Housing Authority as a potential partner for bringing the Village Defense system to Philadelphia neighborhoods, because the Housing Authority has housing in nearly every area of the city.
I, for one, think it’s an idea worth exploring. Not because it’s inexpensive, or because it’s already proven successful in Atlanta, although both those things are true. I’d like Philadelphia to explore this idea because it involves the only people who can truly keep a neighborhood safe—the neighbors.
Maybe if we can get people to move beyond believing safety is someone else’s job, we can stop looking at safety as a privilege, and start viewing it as a right.