About five years ago, Ruskin Heights in South Kansas City was the third most violent neighborhood in Jackson County.
But a new approach to tackling crime changed that, and it has a little something to do with how COMBAT, the county’s Community Backed Anti-Drug Sales Tax is becoming an anti-crime sales tax.
When he saw the data on crime in Ruskin Heights, Vince Ortega, who was then the deputy director of COMBAT, started pouring through the hundred plus groups COMBAT funds to find one in South Kansas City.
“We had none of our programs there, so they had none of our resources,” Ortega said.
So, he decided to try something new — a community-level approach to fighting violence in crime hotspots, starting with Ruskin.
He pooled the area’s resources, bringing together churches, police and neighborhood leaders for a meeting. The Kansas City Police Department's South Patrol, the Hickman Mills School District and the Kansas City No Violence Alliance each brought data to the table. It turned out around 250 teenagers were responsible for most of the crime in the area.
They coordinated their efforts, and COMBAT subsidized the programs. Ortega hired area resident and advocate Marva Moses as a community engagement liaison. Moses started going door-to-door with police to meet with the teens identified through the data.
“Instead of harassing and arresting, they were letting the families know, ‘We have resources out here,’” Ortega said.
A home away from home
Through this outreach, they found out a majority of these kids didn’t have a place to go after school.
So, in 2016, COMBAT opened Hope Hangout, a community center for teens in Bethel Family Church, right across the street from Ruskin High School. It’s open every day, providing lots of pizza, games, homework time and structure.
Hope Hangout has served more than 300 teenagers, Moses said. Now she is working with just 20 who’ve been referred by the Hickman Mills district for behavioral health issues, like getting into fights.
"Growing up where we are, you see a lot of bad stuff," said 19-year-old Derrion Williams. "So when you meet somebody that's genuine and good to you, that sticks with you."
Moses was that person for the kids. She became a mentor many of the kids didn’t know even they needed, like 18-year-old Treyon Brown. Brown was one of the teens caught up in crime a few years back.
“I was getting in trouble at school. I was getting in trouble with the police. I was just doing a whole bunch of stuff,” he said. “I didn’t know the right way or the wrong way. I was just like, 'I’m with my friends. I’m gonna do what I do with my friends,' I didn’t really think it was bad at that point, I just thought it was just something to do.”
When he first started coming to Hope Hangout, he said he would sit in the corner with his headphones in and hoodie up.
Williams, who graduated from Ruskin last year, said he remembers when Brown first started coming.
“You don’t realize you need it until you get it. Once you get it, it just feels right,” Williams said. “When I’m here, all my worries are gone. I don’t worry about nothing. I don’t even check my phone.”
Brown said he remembers deciding to come back and to open himself up “just a little bit.”
“Now, I’m all the way open,” he said. “There’s no looking back.”
Two years later, his life is completely different. Moses said he doesn’t get into trouble anymore. He has plans to finish high school, go to college and become a veterinarian. For the first time in his life, he said he feels like he can do that.
‘We forgot about the community’
Ortega said that over time, some of what has contributed to high levels of violent crime is anti-violence and prevention groups working in their own silos.
Even COMBAT, he said, had this problem.
“We've been doing the same thing for 30 years and it hasn't worked,” he said. “Somewhere along the way we forgot the community. It just became a program funding agency.”
As the agency’s new executive director, Ortega said he’s ushering in a new era for COMBAT.
Change wasn’t instant for Ruskin Heights, but the model worked. From 2016 to 2018, COMBAT reports aggravated assaults dropped roughly 60 percent; robberies fell around 80 percent.
Ortega said he wants to see this happen across the county, starting with Raytown, Independence and Northeast Kansas City, three other areas with high levels of concentrated crime.
That work has already begun. During a year of infighting in Jackson County over control of COMBAT, which left vacant the executive director seat, Ortega and other county officials were meeting with each of these communities monthly.
Ortega, now the executive director, is planning to hire four community engagement coordinators to keep boots on the ground in each of these areas. He said he wants to empower every crime-ridden neighborhood to create a hub to meet their specific needs — a Hope Hangout of their own.
Trey Brown, for one, said he can’t imagine his life without it.
“Everything is more clear now. I see the world in a different way,” Brown said. “I always thought people was bad. So now that I have people on my side, I look at everything different. Changed my whole demeanor.”
If Brown is any indication, it could have a big impact.