A Takoma Park youth center designed to combat gang violence and the social ills that ignite it moved a step closer to fruition recently when officials announced it would receive a $365,000 federal grant.
The Crossroads Youth Opportunity Center, which is also being funded by $500,000 approved this summer by the Prince George's and Montgomery county councils, is designed to stem the recent increase in gang activity across the Washington region, officials said.
The center would provide after-school activities, tutoring, job training, mental health counseling and drug-abuse counseling to young people in gangs or vulnerable to recruitment, officials said. It would also provide a place for teenagers to go without getting into trouble.
Officials are negotiating the lease for the center, which would be near Langley Park. The center is expected to be running by the end of the year, officials said.
"Parents told us in community hearings that they want a safe, productive place for their kids to be after school," said Joe Heiney-Gonzalez, the Hispanic/Latino liaison for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "Parents are working, and kids are home alone, and the gang members recruit them when they don't have positive things to be involved in."
The tough task of getting young people to abandon gangster life is one of the center's main goals, said U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who helped secure the grant.
"There are a number of youngsters that get lured into gangs who are looking for a way out," he said. "And it's a lot easier to get into gangs then get out of them."
The idea for the center grew out of a task force formed last year by officials from Montgomery and Prince George's counties after a surge in gang violence. Since then, the problem has not abated, making the need for the center all the more urgent, officials said.
Last month, six teenagers were injured in two knife attacks in Montgomery County. A dozen young men and teenagers were charged in the assaults, which officials said were carried out by the gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, as retribution against a rival gang. One of the assaults occurred in the parking lot of Springbrook High School in the Colesville area. The other was at the Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton mall.
Also last month, 19 men, all alleged MS-13 members, were indicted on federal racketeering charges in the Washington area. The indictment accuses the men of six murders and four attempted murders in suburban Maryland.
The area's gang problem has been so severe that teachers around the region have been trained recently to recognize gang symbols. Montgomery County has assigned a police officer at every high school, and it also has created a new position for a gang violence prevention coordinator that will work with various departments to deter gang activity.
"I think it's critical that we target resources at this particular problem -- resources that are not just going to law enforcement generally, but really targeted on the gang issue, and that's the idea behind these funds," Van Hollen said. "Certainly the recent violence makes this all the more pressing, and so I'm very pleased we were able to obtain these funds."
Although Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said the Takoma Park youth center is a "huge step in the right direction," he said the key to fighting gangs is through personal connections.
"The key question will be: Will we . . . provide the sorts of resources we need to provide the human interaction to turn lives around?" Ivey said.
"You've got gangs that are recruiting kids person to person, day in and day out in the schools, on the streets, in the neighborhoods, everywhere," he said. "We need to have a similar effort to counterbalance that. And right now we don't."