Bold headlines appear across the front pages of newspapers, and television reporters soberly file live updates from crime scenes. L.A. neighborhoods synonymous with gang violence seem remote to most of us, but they reach into all our lives. Because of our fraying social services network and municipalities on the brink of insolvency, the business community can, and should, assist in the fight to prevent young people from joining gangs.

As a first step, we must recognize that gang violence is a critical social issue, and it extracts a high toll on the business community and the general public. The city of Los Angeles alone harbors over 400 gangs with more than 39,000 members, according to the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles. 

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently noted that while “overall crime continues to drop in Los Angeles, we continue to see gang violence as one of the serious threats facing our city.”

Gang violence is costly to the business community as urban blight and graffiti negatively affect real estate and property values. In addition, fear of crime deters both potential investors and existing customers, and the impact on small business is profound.

The detrimental consequences extend beyond the gangs and tragically to their victims. Injuries to individuals result in loss of productivity, increased health care and insurance costs, mental health concerns and post-traumatic suffering. The Vera Institute of Justice Cost Benefit Analysis reported that in 2006, medical care for victims of gunshot wounds in the city of Los Angeles cost California and federal agencies an estimated $45 million. The same report said out-of-pocket expenses to victims such as loss of wages, property damage, medical and quality of life total some $1.1 billion annually.

In addition, young people who become gang members are an economic burden to society. The cost of incarcerating gang members actually exceeds annual expenses at top private universities, which can total about $60,000 per student for tuition, room and board. A 2007 Urban Strategies Council study estimated the state of California paid some $175,600 per person during the 2006-07 fiscal year for young people incarcerated by the Department of Juvenile Justice.

It’s also notable that the face and geographic location of gang members is diversifying. According to a 2008 article in the Philippine News: “Caucasian, Pacific Islander and Asian gangs – including splintered Filipinos in Carson, Glendale, Eagle Rock, Panorama City, San Fernando Valley, Rowland Heights, West Covina, Cerritos and Lakewood – fight for either turf supremacy, cultural identity, economic/territorial power, or plain-and-simple life and limb protection.”

Finally, gang violence costs California taxpayers about $2 billion a year, says a Vera Institute study cited by Connie Rice, civil rights attorney and founder of Advancement Project, a civil rights non-profit.  

What are we to make of all the gloomy statistics cited here? I believe the importance of working together as a community – aligning business leaders, policymakers and program providers – to address the problem of gang violence in Los Angeles cannot be overstated.

My employer, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, recognizes the importance of supporting this issue. Earlier this year, we awarded grants totaling $200,000 to 10 L.A. community-based gang prevention and intervention agencies. The largest grant, $50,000, went to the Advancement Project for its work in partnering with law enforcement, Los Angeles Unified School District safety personnel, and local school and business leaders to ultimately create safe havens for students.

Summer Night Lights

Another effective program, funded partly by the business community, is the city’s Summer Night Lights program. SNL keeps city parks open after dark with athletic and arts activities for families, and provides jobs for at-risk youth. Last year, neighborhoods with SNL sites experienced a 40 percent drop in gang-related crimes and a 57 percent reduction in gang-related homicides. 

Since 2008, SNL has been recognized as a national model for violence reduction. This year, companies providing financial support include Wal-Mart, Southern California Gas, Sony Pictures, the Walt Disney Co. and Paramount Pictures.

Another program garnering corporate contributions is the venerable Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles. Enterprises donating funds to this mentoring program for at-risk youth, and encouraging their employees to volunteer, include Southern California Edison, Transamerica and Wells Fargo, to name a few.

Yet even small and midsize companies can, and should, invest in our youth by supporting education, as well as existing gang prevention and intervention programs. Collaboration between foundations, small businesses and corporate funders can encourage and provide funds to create training programs, paid jobs and after-school activities, offering at-risk youth positive alternatives to gangs.

At the very least, the business community needs to be informed and concerned about gang violence, and the toll it takes upon us all. A good place to start is a visit to StreetGangs.com/resources/programs, which offers an extensive overview of local intervention initiatives.

Amelia Xann is vice president of grant programs and the Family Foundation Center at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

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