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It was not quite 10 p.m. last Sunday when I walked out my front door for an evening trip to the store. A neighbor who’d just arrived home saw me heading for my car and gestured toward me.
“I think I just saw the guys who’ve been breaking into cars around here,” he said, pointing toward three figures about a block away. “They’re down there.”
I looked in that direction, and when I picked them out of the darkness, my emotions swung from anger to heartbreak, from certainty to confusion. The three shadowy figures he was pointing at looked to be between 12- and 15-years-old. They were babies. Yet there they were, glancing warily over their shoulders as they made their way toward ruin.
I thought of my own children, who are in elementary and middle school, respectively. They are nearly the same age as the kids in question, but unlike those children, my kids were at home, resting in preparation for school the next day. These other children—these aimless thieves—were preparing for a life of turmoil. Sadly, those kids will get what they are looking for, and the rest of us will suffer, as well.
This was not the reality we expected to face when we moved a decade ago to a well-kept block in the city’s northwest. Our street is one where bank managers and police officers, teachers and nurses, accountants and legislators live side by side. It is a stable place. But in recent years, I’ve learned that location doesn’t necessarily protect one from crime. Neither does the quality of one’s neighbors.
In Philadelphia, where most neighborhoods are walking distance from pockets of poverty, we are all subject to property crimes that erode quality of life like a river pounding a mountain. The river is one that flows all year ’round, but it is especially active during the summer.
Through the first five months of 2014, 18,192 property crimes were reported in Philadelphia. These crimes include residential and non-residential burglary, and thefts from persons, stores, or vehicles. The good news is that such crimes have decreased by five percent from the same time period last year. The bad news is that property crime, and indeed all crime, tends to increase during the summer months, when young people are out of school.
Last year, for instance, there were 3,704 property crimes during the month of January, but in July, there were 4,592. That’s a nearly 20-percent increase, and such increases are not uncommon. Police say this happens for a number of reasons, including more people being away for vacation and leaving doors unlocked. That gives criminals easier access, said police spokesman Lt. John Stanford, adding that he can’t directly link the increase in crime to kids being out of school.
The old folks who raised me might have a better explanation. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and if the statistics on teen unemployment are any indication, the devil will be busy this summer.
According to an analysis of U.S. Census data from the Employment Policy Institute, the unemployment rate for teens in Philadelphia area is 33.2 percent. That rate, which is far above the 21.6 percent national average for teen unemployment, puts our area among the top 15 for teen unemployment.
In truth, though, the problems we see with Philadelphia’s teens aren’t just about unemployment. The problems are also tied to a lack of direction, a lack of resources, and yes, a lack of finances.
Stanford said parents should take advantage of the things that are in place, such as recreation centers, libraries, Police Athletic League Centers, Police Explorers, the City’s Summer work for our youth and other options.
I agree, but I also know there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and that’s an issue, especially given the economic condition of some of our citizens.
We can’t expect to live in a city where more than a quarter of our residents are impoverished, and do so without repercussions. We can’t expect to live in a city where schools are woefully underfunded, and do so without suffering consequences. We can’t expect to maintain the delicate balance between the haves and have-nots without ever reaching a tipping point.
Like anyone who has worked hard for the things he has, I am determined to protect my property. But I know that we have to do much more than defend against the creeping scourge of property crime. We must hold parents accountable for overseeing their children. We must step into the breach where no parent is active and available. We must enforce the law in ways that are both firm and fair. But we must also go beyond the status quo, and dare to create opportunity.
Perhaps it’s time for us to look beyond the bloody tales that dominate the headlines. After all, today’s theft from a vehicle is tomorrow’s aggravated assault. The kids who break into cars will graduate to breaking bones. But before we watch them tear families apart by committing the ultimate act of violence, maybe we should find ways to reel them in. Maybe we should find ways to get them jobs.
If we don’t do so, I suspect we’ll look back and lament our lost opportunity. These kids will grow up, and unless we intervene, we’ll find ourselves dealing with much more than the slow drip of property crime. We’ll find ourselves drowning beneath a tidal wave of violence.