Keeping neighborhoods safer, healthier

Genevive Meeks was 19 when AmeriCorps members began boarding up abandoned homes in her Detroit neighborhood.

“There were open holes where there was a lot of drug trafficking,” she says.

Afterward, she says the neighborhood felt different. “I know the kids felt safer going to school. It wasn’t just every person for themselves anymore.”

While working on her street, a volunteer told Meeks about Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies and its AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program. Meeks joined the one-year program. Now 22, she has renewed her commitment twice.

The AmeriCorps safety program is just one of many at the Center for Urban Studies. The center, which collects and disseminates data related to urban policy in metro Detroit, seeks not only to understand the challenges urban areas face — such as health and safety — but also to test and implement programs that can alleviate those challenges. WSU created the center in the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riot.

“We are a research center, but we also experiment and try to figure out what programs are effective. Then we seek to intervene and help the communities of Detroit,” explains Lyke Thompson, director for the center and professor in WSU’s Department of Political Science.

With a federal grant, the center started the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program to reduce susceptibility to criminal activity in Detroit’s communities. More than 100 AmeriCorps members, like Meeks, create block clubs, expand or establish neighborhood patrols, clean up lots, and board vacant homes.

“A lot is education. A lot is intervention. Criminals often case houses before they try to break in, and we try to educate people and give them tools to make it harder,” Thompson says.

Meeks enjoys interacting with the police as they assess residents’ homes and, if necessary, install deadbolt locks and battery-operated alarms on their doors and windows.

“I never thought about how some people didn’t have locks and stayed up all night worrying that someone might break in,” she says.

As part of the Detroit Fire Prevention and Safety Project, Center for Urban Studies volunteers install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in homes and educate residents on ways to reduce their risk of a house fire. In addition to crime prevention, the center is heavily involved in Detroit’s crime-fighting efforts.

Thompson says they began working with the WSU and Detroit police departments about nine years ago to create a model for patrolling neighborhoods. The center facilitated meetings between police agencies, community organizations and businesses to get a handle on crime in Midtown.

As a result, Thompson says, crime in the area has decreased 55 to 60 percent.

WSU implemented the model in the city’s 11 police precincts, where the center facilitates monthly meetings with precinct officers, businesses, community leaders and the Department of Corrections to examine strategies and tactics to fight crime specific to those neighborhoods. Every two weeks, the center holds crime-mapping and analysis meetings with commanders and captains who focus on solving one or two tough issues.

Raising awareness of health issues

Even more powerful than volunteering with the center’s public safety programs is working with its healthy homes programs, says Meeks.

A large number of illnesses, injuries and deaths are caused by deteriorating housing conditions. So, the Center for Urban Studies is working with HUD and other partners to identify dangerous homes. That includes looking for homes with pest, water and lead problems.

A healthy homes assessment indicates 17 percent of kids living in the 48214 ZIP code have lead poisoning, for instance.

“If residents have kids in the house, we refer them to programs that can help them abate the lead and urge them to take the child to a primary care physician or to the health department for testing so they can get the lead levels down in the child as soon as possible,” Thompson says.

Because Detroit has one of the worst problems with asthma of any city in the country, his group is working in southwest Detroit to reduce asthma and related conditions by helping families control pests and get new roofs on old houses so they don’t leak and grow mold. The center has already assessed about 2,200 houses this year.

“I always wanted to make the community better,” Meeks says. “You have to make a change to see a change.” Still, she’s surprised by how much she and the city’s residents have grown since she started volunteering with the Center for Urban Studies.

“Being a part of this empowers me and seems to have a positive effect on the people we encounter. Being part of this has helped me also see the growth of Detroit, how it’s changing for the better and how people are trying to make a difference.”

This story was originally published by Crain Content Studio for Wayne State University.