HAVERHILL — Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, has been very generous to causes in greater Boston since leaving City Hall in 2013.
And now, city officials in Haverhill are hoping Bloomberg, a Medford native, will give them a small slice of his fortune to help curb a growing problem in the city — street gangs.
This week, Mayor James Fiorentini announced that Haverhill is one of the first cities to submit an RSVP to participate in the 2017 Bloomberg Challenge for financial help in steering kids away from the destructive, deadly influence of gangs.
A nationwide competition that encourages cities to find innovative solutions to a problem they’re facing, the Bloomberg Challenge has drawn applications from 555 cities in the U.S. and U.S. territories this year. The last challenge held in the United States by Bloomberg Philanthropies took place in 2013, and it awarded prizes to applicants ranging from $100,000 to four prizes of $1 million.
The grand prize winner of the challenge will receive $5 million. The winner of the last U.S. Bloomberg Challenge was Providence, Rhode Island, which put that money toward developing a program which would help children learn more words in their infant years at home.
Gang-related shootings were a consistent happening in the city this summer, with four taking place after July 1. A fifth shooting occurred in the Acre neighborhood on Sept. 6, mere hours after Police Chief Alan DeNaro addressed the council on the department’s handling of the earlier shootings.
Estimates vary on how big the gang problem in the city actually is. DeNaro said on that Tuesday night that there were as many as 375 gang members residing in the city. Fiorentini told the City Council Tuesday night that there could be as many as 300 individuals.
Regardless, eradicating the problem will require a multi-faceted approach, said Fiorentini Tuesday.
“The problem we chose is not unique to us, but is found in every gateway city in Massachusetts, and every large city in the U.S.,” said Fiorentini, adding that he will be setting up focus groups to get input on the city’s pitch for the challenge.
Haverhill officials hope that if the city’s solution wins the Bloomberg Challenge, it could serve as blueprint for municipalities stuck in the clutches of gangs. Fiorentini told the council that his administration didn’t choose the gang problem strictly to win the challenge, but rather, to get all of the players needed to stop the growth of gangs in the city at the table to discuss a solution.
The city was one of 300 applicants that received a professional facilitator from Bloomberg Philanthropies for an all-day Idea Accelerator workshop to discuss the gang problem, which met in City Hall last week and drew representatives from multiple city departments, Northern Essex Community College, and non-profit organizations such as Power of Self-Education (POSE) of Haverhill and UTEC of Lowell.
Of those 550 applications this year, 20 are from Massachusetts cities, including Merrimack Valley communities like Lowell and Tewksbury.
Noah Koretz of MassDevelopment, who has worked with Haverhill over the last two years, doesn’t think they’re a shoo-in for the big money.
“You don’t have to be New York or Los Angeles. Small cities can and do win,” said Koretz, adding that Santa Monica, California received a $1 million prize despite being home to roughly 80,000 people.
The application deadline for October 20, and it is the hope of city councilors that increasing the dialogue about gangs will help stop them, with or without Mike Bloomberg’s millions.
Councilor Michael McGonagle, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said the challenge will allow the city to “peel back the onion” with regards to gangs. And while the mayor touted increases in the city’s police budget, overtime hours and decreases in the city’s crime and dropout rates, McGonagle said that sitting idly and watching statistics go down will not solve the problem.
“I don’t think we’ve always been frank and honest about the concern we have for gangs,” said McGonagle, citing a recent gang-related arrest. “It’s real and in front of us.”
Councilor Andy Vargas asked when the city would hear back about the winners of the challenge, to which the mayor responded “between October and January.”
An advocate for an additional dropout counselor at Haverhill High School, Vargas also shared words with Fiorentini on the need to continue reducing the number of dropouts at the city’s high school. He stated that the city’s dropout rate is 15th among the state’s 351 cities and towns and that the city must consider utilizing other revenue streams to address the root causes of gangs.
“It would be important to know around the time when we start talking about free cash and certifying funds,” said Vargas. “We should be ready to make an investment and do what we need to do, regardless of whether we get the grant or not.”
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