Community activists and residents who gathered in the Columbia City Council’s chambers Wednesday dread what youths look forward to for months: the beginning of summer.
The meeting was organized by First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton to discuss summer work and volunteer opportunities for youths.
The conversation quickly turned to the relationship between warm weather and rising delinquency.
“I hate to see it get hot here. I pray for rain, sleet, snow or whatever,” Crayton said.
Columbia Housing Authority Executive Director Doris Chiles, who was at Wednesday’s meeting, said her organization is already seeing an increasing number of gatherings near housing authority property.
“When people gather on the fringes of our property, it affects other people,” Chiles said.
One of the first big gatherings this year was on March 29, when the temperature topped 75 degrees. It was open-gym night at Douglass High School, and a fight broke out between two men. Before long, 200 to 300 people had gathered at the school to watch. Police called for backup and used tear gas to break up the fight while the crowd scattered. One man, who police said was directly involved in the fight, was arrested.
Residents say fights and the crowds they draw are not unusual this time of year. Nancy Henderson, who lives in the neighborhood, said she can always tell when there’s going to be a fight.
“Everybody comes and sits around,” she said. “There are a lot of people just waiting for the fight.”
Gloria Shimm, who owns AQ Beauty Supply in the city’s First Ward, said she isn’t particularly alarmed by the fight-loving crowds.
“It is a simple thing, (the weather) is nice so everyone is going out,” she said. “Everyone in this neighborhood is like a big family. Families are fighting all the time.”
Police presence usually helps to disperse crowds.
“Once the police show up, it doesn’t take them very long to get in the cars and (scram) out of there,” Henderson said.
It’s a perennial question — what to do about the heat, the boredom and the trouble that results. This year, Crayton and other residents of the First Ward are organizing a rally for concerned parents and residents to discuss ways to quell fights and other disturbances. It’s set for 6 p.m. today at Douglass Park.
“Our senior citizens (and others) ought not have to be afraid in their own house,” Crayton said. “Enough is enough.”
Crayton also emphasized that while most of the problems involving youths occur in her neighborhood, other areas in Columbia are not immune.
“It takes the whole town to say we’re not going to put up with this mess this summer,” Crayton said.
Columbia police Sgt. Don Hawkins said that police change their patrol tactics when the weather changes. “We get out on foot a bit more,” he said. “We need to get out and be seen by the residents.”
Hawkins’ supervisor, Capt. Brad Nelson, emphasized the importance of the foot patrols. “If you are in a car, there’s no human interaction,” he said.
Foot and bike patrols are also increased in East Campus and downtown when the weather warms.
For every part of town, there’s a different concern, Columbia police Sgt. Mike Hayes said.
“Street robberies go hand in hand with there being more people out,” Nelson said. “Domestic violence and assaults also increase as the weather improves.”
Residents at Wednesday’s meeting suggested a wide range of solutions including increased police patrols, recreation programs, talent shows, summer work and volunteer opportunities, and possibly a citywide curfew.
“What do you do with the kids that are frequent peace disturbers?” Crayton asked. “We’re at a point now where it’s like a powder keg.”
Ken Beauchum, 30, a performing artist and entrepreneur, is working with Crayton to coordinate talent shows at Douglass Park this summer. Beauchum said he believes giving teens a venue to showcase their talents in music or dance on a regular basis ensures that their summer vacation is productive.
Steve Tatlow , community involvement coordinator for the Boone County Community Partnership, also attended Wednesday’s meeting. He said he thinks there are a number of talented youth in Columbia who simply need to be connected with opportunities.
To that end, the Boone County Community Partnership and Mayor Darwin Hindman’s office will host The Mayor’s Summer Youth Opportunities Fair on April 30 at the Ramada Inn, 1100 Vandiver Drive.
“(The fair) came out of the concern that was expressed at this same time last year regarding what was available for youths,” Tatlow said.
This marks the fair’s second year. It connects youths with work and volunteer opportunities as well as summer recreation programs and entrepreneurship. Tatlow is seeking more employers for the fair.
“The more opportunities there are for our young people, the better our community will be,” Tatlow said.
Tatlow said more than 176 youths between the ages of 14 and 21 filled out employment and volunteer applications at the fair last year. He said it attracted a number of motivated youths who gained job skills.
“It’s so easy to blame the youth for everything and I don’t want to do that,” Ken Beauchum said. “I realize they have problems, but kids are born into a world that’s full of problems. I haven’t given up on the youth.”