ROCHESTER — Meetings with residents who live in northeast Rochester identified drugs as the number one issue negatively affecting their neighborhoods.
Specifically, the residents spoke of the frustration from seeing groups of young men standing on their street corners every day selling such "low-level" drugs as marijuana, said Miguel Meléndez, coordinator for Project HOPE, an Ibero-American Action League initiative that seeks to improve the lives of those residents.
"You can’t arrest your way out of that problem," he noted. "Current laws on the books don’t allow for any harsh punishments for these guys. But in talking with residents and hearing their stories, they don’t necessarily want to keep arresting these young people. They want to give them opportunities."
That information prompted staff from Project HOPE to look for such opportunities, Meléndez explained. And an application by the Greater Rochester Health Foundation — which supports the initiative — led to Project HOPE receiving nearly $400,000 from a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant and matching funds to create "Rochester Drug-Free Streets," he added. The $184,500 "Roadmaps to Health" grant from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was announced Dec. 13.
With the funding, Project HOPE will hire a program coordinator and a restorative practices coordinator to run the program, with plans to start up next spring, Meléndez said.
The restorative practices will come into play during the first phase of the program, he said.
"Instead of trying to address every drug dealer in northeast Rochester, we’re going to find markets and neighborhoods with about 10 to 12 people consistently selling low-level drugs and try to overwhelm them with support," Meléndez said.
That support will come in the form of community conferencing, a restorative concept where a dealer who has agreed to participate will sit down with Project HOPE staff, members of their families and residents to talk about how his behavior is affecting the people he loves and the community, Meléndez said.
The effort also will include matching up willing participants with education, employment or job-training resources, he added.
"The only way to fight against that (lifestyle) is to try and supplement their income in a way that gets them on the right track," Meléndez noted. "You can get on the right track because we’re going to support you to get on the right track."
Because even a misdemeanor will pose challenges in getting a job such as at a fast-food chain, he said. And a felony means the loss of any kind of student loan option, he added.
To help the participants avoid those pitfalls, the program will find as many community partners as possible, Meléndez said.
"Part of our discussion has been of not wanting to reinvent the wheel," he said. "So, we’re going to do a scan of what’s available locally, what’s already here and partner with as many individuals as we can."
The committee that developed the proposal included several community partners, Meléndez added, such as Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard, Rochester City Councilwoman Lovely Warren, John Klofas, director of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives, Partners in Restorative Initiatives, the city’s neighborhood services center, Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency and HealthiKids.
Klofas identified the restorative model and research led to the "drug market intervention strategy" used by High Point Police Department in North Carolina, Meléndez said. That model employs police during its conferencing called "call-ins," which won’t be done in the Rochester initiative, he added.
The North Carolina model addressed the issue not as a drug problem but an "overt market" located in poor, minority communities within specific geographic boundaries, according to information at www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/RIC/publications/e08097226-HighPoint.pdf.
The result was a dramatic reduction in drug activity in the markets identified in the surrounding neighborhoods, Meléndez said, and the model was replicated in other parts of the country, including cities in Rhode Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Illinois.
The success of the High Point Police Department model continues today through its maintenance phase, Capt. Kenneth Steele said in an e-mail.
"We keep close tabs on the overt drug markets in the target area and make sure that it doesn’t re-establish itself," he said. "It is much like tending a garden. We worked with the community to get the area set up like we both want it, and now we just have to keep watch over it and make sure the weeds don’t pop back up."
And the dealers didn’t just relocate elsewhere, he remarked, as the program is data-driven and the department is constantly monitoring its crime statistics.
"If we see a rise in another area, we treat it the same way," he added. "We have several initiative areas that are in the maintenance phase at this time and we keep an eye on those to make sure that the overt drug problems don’t blossom again. So in short, we monitor it at all times and try to make sure that dealers don’t get a foothold in another area."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the "Rochester Drug-Free Streets" initiative, call Miguel Meléndez at 585-467-6410, ext. 28.