DENVER — The City of Denver called the number of teens impacted by youth violence a public health crisis – Denver Public Health said an average of 700 people who are directly affected by gun violence each year are under the age of 25.
City officials announced a comprehensive plan to help prevent that violence on Monday. Denver's Youth Violence Prevention Plan takes a public health approach to curbing the violence.
The city's newly appointed Youth Violence Prevention Coordinator, Jonathan McMillan, said they didn't want to take a criminal justice approach. "There are so many young people who are counting trusting on us the trusted adults, as the professionals, as the community members to do whatever we can to make a difference," said McMillan. "The impact of me failing or systems in place failing is young people dying."
The city started by identifying social determinants that lead to violence. Many are common among low-income families or people of color. McMillan gave some examples like feeling disenfranchised, not having access to quality education, or food and shelter insecurity. The plan would use the scope of city agencies to fill in those gaps.
"That will have a long-term effect on young people feeling as though violence is going to be a solution to whatever physical, emotional, mental health need that they're experiencing right now," said McMillan.
The plan is made of almost two dozen long-term strategies. That includes the development of new youth centers, expansion of safe zone events, access to mental and behavioral supports for youth and families, enhanced programming through community-based organizations, adoption of innovative data-sharing models and through a regional collaborative approach, continued community outreach on youth violence prevention efforts.
>>Watch above video: 'Safe Zones' coming to Denver and Aurora to help stop youth violence.
“Engaging youth in shaping our plan was critical to defining our strategies,” Mayor Michael Hancock said in a City of Denver press release. “Our young people were at the table with us as partners – giving us fresh perspectives and relevant information about their experiences, their needs and their interests – informing what strategies would be effective in preventing youth violence in our city."
McMillan said he's looking forward to the safe zone expansion. Those events give teens a free place to go that gets them off the streets. McMillan said the comprehensive plan will scale the 17 safe zone events held in 2020 to 100 events in areas most impacted by violence.
The program will bring officials from city agencies like the office of children affairs, human services and public health to those events to connect families to those services for easier access.
"It's about eliminating barriers, making connections and introductions and raising awareness of what already exists in the city," McMillan said.
Local community organizations will be a large part of the comprehensive plan. McMillan said they can offer employment, mentoring or volunteering opportunities. He wants full collaboration to make Denver a safer city.
McMillan admitted the change in systemic and institutional paradigms is not going to happen overnight. But, with the number of teens killed in Denver, the endeavor is still necessary.
"I tend to compare it to a freight train that's going down the train track at 100 miles per hour and now asking everybody to stop that train and turn it around in another direction when the tracks haven't even been built yet. We're in the process of building the tracks right now," McMillan said. "And hopefully, I'm going to work my way out of a job. I don't know how fast it's going to happen. If you ask anyone that's grieving over the loss of a loved one right now, it's not happening fast enough."
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