Members of the Hamilton Park baseball league practice on a Wednesday evening in May. Credit: Jeffrey Marini

I know there are concerns in the community that it could be a bad summer, but I’m optimistic,” Perry Gunn says.

It’s Gunn’s job to be hopeful. He’s executive director of Teamwork Englewood, a community group working to improve the quality of life in the south-side neighborhood, which stretches from Garfield Boulevard to 75th Street and Racine to about Wentworth. Improving the quality of life requires attracting investment, so Gunn tends to accentuate the positive.

For decades now, however, Englewood has been afflicted by poverty and the crime that goes with it. The especially violent year in Chicago thus far—221 homicides and 1,272 shooting victims through May 11—has heightened concerns about Englewood and the city’s other impoverished neighborhoods, especially given that crime usually rises in the summer.

CeaseFire “violence interrupters” worked to suppress shootings in Englewood last July. The nonprofit group uses former gang members to mediate disputes and stop budding conflicts from becoming shooting wars. Its executive director, Mark Payne, says the group plans to have violence interrupters in Englewood again this summer. But because of the budget impasse in Springfield, CeaseFire has received none of the $1.9 million allotted to it by the state this year. It’s relying on support from foundations and individuals, but likely will have fewer interrupters in Chicago overall. (The group already has workers in Little Village and South Shore, Payne says.)

Englewood will rely mainly on more traditional methods for interrupting violence—youth programs and summer jobs. “If we keep kids engaged, we can have a positive summer,” Gunn says.

He raves about one program in particular: a baseball league for kids ages nine to 12 that will play twice weekly at Hamilton Park. The 120 or so kids in the league are coached by ten Englewood district police officers, many of whom were recruited to coach by their commander, Larry Watson.

The success of the Jackie Robinson West Little League team in 2014 raised interest in baseball in Englewood, Gunn says. (Jackie Robinson West won the Little League World Series that year, but its title was stripped because the team violated residency rules.) The Hamilton Park league launched last year, and on its opening day, a band from the neighborhood played as the kids paraded around the field in their uniforms and parents and guardians cheered from the bleachers. Later that summer, Watson and the coaches took the youngsters to a White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field. (The Sox provided passes.) “That’s what community policing is all about,” Gunn says.

Englewood officers have also run programs for neighborhood youth in bowling, swimming, soccer, and golf, according to Watson. In Englewood, “Police may not be looked upon as an asset, unfortunately,” he says—but this kind of involvement “helps kids see that police are people too.”

“When you’re fishing, you’re not throwing a rock through a window,” Watson says. “And a kid may discover that he’s good at something he’d never tried.” When kids are fishing or playing baseball, “there’s no shots fired, no ambulances,” he says. “It’s just all about having fun.

“It may sound corny, but I’m expecting great things in Englewood this summer,” Watson adds.

“If we keep kids engaged, we can have a positive summer,” says Teamwork Englewood’s Perry Gunn.Credit: Jeffrey Marini

Before games and practices at Hamilton Park, youth workers teach the kids strategies for dealing with friction. “We talk with them about ‘How do you avoid getting into conflict with a peer?’ ” Gunn says. “ ’What are steps you can take when you get hot with someone else, to make sure it doesn’t escalate?’ ” But the most important benefit of the league, he says, is “it connects the kids with a caring adult.”

Englewood will be one of about 15 neighborhoods participating in Hoops in the Hood in July and August. Community groups that participate in the 17-year-old program organize weekly games and tournaments in their neighborhoods; a city championship is held at the end of the summer. The games in Englewood are played on courts at 69th and Morgan; Gunn expects about 150 youths, ages ten through 19, to participate.

Gunn says the city’s summer jobs program will also help limit violence in Englewood in the coming months. The city has added 1,000 jobs and internships to the program, which is for young people ages 14 through 24; the more than 25,000 jobs and internships this year will be the largest summer jobs program in Chicago’s history, according to the city. Most of the applicants and recipients are from low-income minority neighborhoods, officials say; Englewood residents will get 500 of the jobs.

In addition, the city is expanding a jobs program it launched in 2012 that has a special antiviolence focus. Participants in this program, One Summer Plus, are ages 16 through 21, and are recruited from the high schools with the highest rates of poverty and truancy. The participants are identified as being at high risk for becoming victims or perpetrators of violence. Along with a part-time, minimum-wage summer job, they get a mentor who meets with them regularly at their workplace. Community groups such as Teamwork Englewood find jobs for the participants—as day camp counselors, cleaning up in parks, assisting in the offices of nonprofits—and supply or recruit the mentors, who are counselors, youth workers, and teachers on summer break.

A study of the program’s first summer found significantly fewer arrests for violent crimes among the 700 participants, compared with a control group—not just during the eight-week working period, but for 13 months afterward. The study was published in Science magazine in December 2014.

Sara Heller, the University of Pennsylvania criminology professor who authored it, noted that job providers credited the mentors with helping participants learn to manage conflict at work. Heller wrote that the process of working itself might have also improved participants’ self-control and poise, which in turn might have made them less inclined to respond violently when disputes arose in their neighborhoods. Heller concluded that “well-targeted, low-cost employment policies can make a substantial difference, even for a problem as destructive and complex as youth violence.”

Lisa Morrison Butler, commissioner of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, likewise believes that the mentors are key to the program’s success. The mentors offer guidance on “navigating the working world” that many youth aren’t able to get at home, she says: “Maybe you were late today and your boss spoke critically to you. And perhaps in your family, you’re the only one working. You might not feel you can go home and say, ‘My boss got in my face today—what do I do?’ ” A youth in the program “can pick up the phone and talk to his mentor, who may tell him, ‘Don’t be discouraged, those things happen. Go back to work tomorrow.’ ”

Aided by a $10 million grant, Chicago will provide 3,000 One Summer Plus jobs this year, 275 of which will go to Englewood residents.

Gunn says youth in summer jobs “learn employment behavior. It’s important for everybody to get up and go to work. And they think about their future—that ‘If I stay out of trouble, I may be able to get a job down the road.’ ”

The police department has used overtime spending to put more officers on the street in previous summers, but superintendent Eddie Johnson has yet to indicate whether it will do so this year. Gunn doesn’t think the key to reducing violence in Englewood is more officers, though. “I think we have enough police,” he says. “It’s about using the resources we have.”

Of course, Englewood residents don’t have anywhere near the resources of residents in neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park or Norwood Park. And until that fundamental inequity is addressed, the violence in Englewood will continue, even as community groups do their best to reduce it. v