Asbury Park, N.J. is a lot like many of the homeless kids we help: full of promise, but beset by the violence of the streets. And lately, the news out of Asbury Park has not been good. An 11-year-old girl cleaning her room on a recent Sunday night was rushed to intensive care after being shot in the face. The bullet was intended for someone else. Six people were shot in January, three in February, including the girl, and three in March. The local Boys and Girls Club, which strives to keep young people entertained and safe, has seen a drop to 50 kids from 70 in its afterschool program, because some parents are now afraid to send their kids to the neighborhood where several of the shootings have occurred. The spiral in attendance has dried up revenues, forcing the club to close the children's community pool.
What kind of a world are we creating where our children are afraid to go to the Boys and Girls Club?
Asbury Park is a gracious but divided city on the Jersey Shore, home of hard-working, multi-generational families, small business owners, elegant architecture, and The Stone Pony -- the classic music club where Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen cut their teeth. The east side of the railroad tracks beckons tourists to the famously shifting and duneless beach, and a burgeoning boardwalk of cultural and culinary attractions; the west side of the tracks is grittier, housing most of the city's children, nearly half of whom live below the poverty line. This city, much like our kids, has heard countless promises of help, promises of how the future will be better soon, honest, and too many of those promises have been broken.
None of this is to suggest the city's people have surrendered. The opposite is true -- the people of Asbury Park are steely and undaunted, even by this latest spate of violence. They know this city can rise again, like the oceanfront grand hotels that rose up as the city gained its stride a century ago, and I believe them. But the American dream feels too elusive to the youngest generation, some of them wandering and homeless, desperate for a safe place to live. Covenant House means to be part of the solution, which is why I'm thrilled our street outreach team has begun to work the boardwalk and streets every day, looking to give kids an alternative to guns, gangs and drugs. We want to reach young people who do not have a place to stay, especially those in the crosshairs of street violence.
I spoke at the City's Crime Prevention Summit this week at the Boys and Girls Club, and was struck by the turnout: more than 250 parents and neighbors who want to make Asbury Park safer for their families. The police have stepped up their patrols in the area, and ask anyone with information on the shootings to help them in their investigations, anonymously if necessary. The meeting lasted more than three hours, and the dialogue among city leaders, county law enforcement, community activists and concerned parents and grandparents was at times raw and emotional.
"Why are we letting children run these streets?" one woman cried out. "They're just children. Let's take back these streets from the children!"
Maybe we would do better to take back our children from these streets.
The playgrounds of heaven are too crowded with children, and so are our jails. If we want to stop the violence, we have to work together. We have to give kids safe passage from street life and homelessness, from bullets and bullies, from the pistols and posses that cloud too many young lives, especially in cities like Asbury Park. We have to marshal the most powerful weapon on earth, hope, if we want to crush the darkness and be the light.
Moralizing about drugs, crime and violence won't light a path forward for kids desperate for options, especially those teenagers who find themselves trying to figure this out alone. We have to come to these streets with options for young people -- safe shelter, educational opportunities, job training, employment and an abiding conviction that these kids have and deserve bright futures. We need to show our young people that we value them, regardless of the color of their skin, the circumstances of their birth or what side of the tracks they were born on.