David Seng has seen a lot of children out during the middle of the night on the streets of Philadelphia. On average, he says, the number is about 12, and each story is different.
“The usual excuse was they were out to pick up Chinese food, and then when you smell them, you know they’ve been drinking,” Seng said. “We had one kid, I remember, who was looking for his father to kill him. We have kids that were picked up – eight or nine years old – at one o’clock in the morning.”
Seng is the director of housing at United Communities of Philadelphia, and he operated the Houston Curfew Center in South Philly.
But that curfew center was shut down in the fall of 2008, and the children who used to be picked up in the middle of the night are now left on the streets.
Along with United Communities’ center, Mayor Michael Nutter shuttered over half of the curfew centers in Philadelphia, leaving only four for each sector–north, south, east and west of the city. By the end of 2008, the city was left without any curfew centers, and the police were left with an ordinance they didn’t have the resources to enforce.
In Philadelphia it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to be more than one block from his or her home after midnight on weekends and 10:30 p.m. on weeknights. For youth under 13, the times are 10 p.m. and 9 p.m..
“Every time there’s a new administration they have their own agenda, and the curfew center was the agenda of John Street,” said Archye Leacock, executive director of the Institute for Development of African American Youth Inc., which ran a curfew center in North Philly West.
Nutter’s administration has assured communities that closing the centers had nothing to do with the gap in the city’s budget. Instead the administration insisted its funding cut was due to the ineffectiveness of the centers.
But police and curfew center directors insist that youth crimes and victimization decreased in communities with curfew centers. So who’s right?
Mayor Nutter’s administration stands by a September 2008 report by the Office of Health and Opportunity, which found that there was “no indication of substantial increase or decrease in juvenile arrest or victimization” once curfew centers began operating.
“I don’t know where they got their data from; I totally disagree,” Seng said. “I know what kind of characters we brought in. I saw the kids every night.”
The Office of Health and Opportunity cites that an average of only three violations occurred at each curfew center per night. The average cost per individual at a center was $789, a cost the report contends is too large for less-than obvious results.
But Chief Operating Officer of the Nicetown Community Development Corp. Majeedah Rashid said that on an average night 15 to 20 kids were brought into Nicetown’s curfew center.
“The city said it was not cost effective. That it wasn’t consistent enough to justify running the curfew centers,” Rashid said. “But most of the centers were overflowing.”
The report also cites the inability of curfew centers to link families to social and psychological services if needed. Leacock, Rashid and Seng all disagree, saying their centers heavily emphasized support services to families.
“Ninety-eight percent of young people that we served, we did get into some sort of service,” Leacock said. “Again. which kid at 13 is going to be out at three in the morning? This work is not easy, and you get very little dollars…we’re very low on the totem pole.”
The report states that although the number of youths brought to the centers increased during fiscal year 2008 so did the number of curfew centers, making the data inconclusive.
But the data could also be interpreted to mean that these curfew centers were fulfilling a real need in the communities they serve.
“These kids are out there, and we need to be able to help these young people,” Leacock said. “The [curfew] center ran for two and half years. We provided real service to these kids. When we picked up a young person 12 [or] 13 years old, we knew something was going on at home. Can you imagine now with no curfew centers what’s happening with these families?”
What’s happening now to the kids who violate curfew is not much of anything. If drugs or underage drinking isn’t involved, police officers pass by. Though police precincts were directly involved with curfew centers, Leacock said the police often had to be reminded to pick the kids up.
“Sometimes police wouldn’t think it was such a big deal,” Leacock said. “We would say to them if you help us pick up these kids today, tomorrow they won’t be the murderers and victims.”
As long as curfew centers do not receive funding from the city, they will remain closed. Financially overburdened community centers simply don’t have the capacity to run curfew programs alone.
“We don’t have the money; we don’t have the manpower because it’s a combination of the community and the police and also mental health experts,” Seng said.
But Leacock is slightly optimistic that curfew centers will eventually reopen.
“Once all of this is settled and the budget is in place, I do think there is a need for young people at those hours who are looking for support and protection,” Leacock said. “Whether we call it a curfew center, a basketball league or an overnight rest center, I do think there is room for a program like that.”