Community members say a lack of programming in Northview Heights drives kids to delinquency | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Community members say a lack of programming in Northview Heights drives kids to delinquency

click to enlarge Community members say a lack of programming in Northview Heights drives kids to delinquency
Students get off the bus in Northview Heights on Feb. 12, 2024.

It was the first warm day off the shoulder of Pittsburgh's deep winter, and the kids of Northview Heights trickled out of their houses to play outside. Olivia Bennett said a quiet prayer.

"Please don't have any shootings," Bennett, a Northview Heights resident, recalls thinking. "It tends to happen when it gets warm out because you have people congregating, [there's] not too much for them to do, so, eventually, there might not be a good ending."

Northview Heights, an insular 455-unit public housing development on Pittsburgh’s North Side, circled by underdeveloped fields and the barely audible hum of the nearby highway, is notably sparse. In terms of youth recreational facilities options are split between the recently reopened gym, a playground, two baseball fields, a basketball court, and a horseshoe pit. 

Community residents and organizers say a lack of resources in Northview Heights leaves juveniles with little to do, driving them to engage in acts of delinquency. According to Russell Carlino, the chief probation officer at the Allegheny County Juvenile Probation Department, 4% of juveniles in Northview Heights have active involvement with the county court system.

Carlino says Allegheny County uses a risk assessment tool to gauge which kids are more likely to commit crimes based on several factors. Among these are juveniles with unstructured leisure time when they're not at school or work.

click to enlarge Community members say a lack of programming in Northview Heights drives kids to delinquency
Former Allegheny County councilwoman Liv Bennett stands outside of her home in Northview Heights.

Bennett, who served on the county council from 2020 - 2023, says a lack of federal and local government funding leaves Northview Heights' programming budgets hollow. Put simply, she says, "There's really nothing for these kids to do."

"We don't have enough to occupy our children, and we wonder why they're getting into trouble and entering the carceral system," Bennett says.

Northview Heights is one of several public housing projects in Pittsburgh. The federal government funds development, which includes construction and maintenance, while programming available to residents is an additional patchwork of local grants and private donations, according to Michelle Sandidge, the chief community affairs officer of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh

Among the programs available to juveniles is YouthPlaces, a nonprofit after-school provider.

Cynthia James, the president and CEO of YouthPlaces, says the organization aims to fill the idle "at-risk hours" between 3 and 8 p.m. — after school and before bedtime — with enriching opportunities for personal development.

"Kids who grew up in those environments often need to look to outside, external sources for a variety of things," James says. "And so, walking from school to home, they could become enamored with an environment that is not necessarily beneficial to their overall futures."

YouthPlaces offers college preparedness courses, social-emotional development, tutoring, and more to kids in Northview Heights and other neighborhoods — all free of charge, according to Weston White, the organization’s associate director. 

"The focal point when we talk about the resources and support is a lot of that is geared around mentoring programs and even just positive role models to be able to follow,” White says. 

Carlino says that, in addition to leisure time, Allegheny County evaluates family circumstances — or the stability of the family and whether a child receives adequate supervision — as a possible risk factor for juvenile delinquency. 

Some 44% of kids below the age of 18 in Northview Heights live in single-parent house-holds, according to the 2022 American Community Survey.

White, who grew up in Northview Heights, says a principal aim of the organization is to give teenagers in Northview Heights — often from scattered households — positive male role models to steer them to brighter futures.

"A lot of the 'role models,' if you will, and I say that with quotes, were those older or younger adults that were involved in street activity," White says, reflecting on his time in Northview Heights. "So those teenagers and those who don't have a positive role model are looking at those young adults for guidance."

Sandidge notes programming like YouthPlaces is available to juveniles who wish to participate, but that Northview Heights' budget is stretched thin.

To adequately meet the needs of the juveniles in Northview Heights and tackle the high rate of court system involvement would require increased contributions from the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and the private and public sectors, Sandidge says.

"I wish anybody would do more," Sandidge says. "If other people's money would be infused in [city and county] grants and whatnot, I think that's the best way we can solve this."

click to enlarge Community members say a lack of programming in Northview Heights drives kids to delinquency
Crossing guard Joyce Robinson directs traffic as kids get off the school bus in Northview Heights on Feb. 12, 2024.

As the weather gets warmer and Pittsburgh Public Schools' summer break approaches, Bennett says she's getting nervous. She says she'll play kickball or double dutch out front of her house and invite kids to join her — if only to give them something to do that precludes criminal activity.

"Even little boys will be like, 'We want to jump.' That's how much there's nothing to do," Bennett says. "The boys want to learn how to jump rope because at least there's some interaction, and somebody's doing something with them."

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