Program cuts Marin County crime in half

June 22, 2010 7:11:57 PM PDT
A program aimed at cutting crime in a low-income neighborhood of Marin County is proving to be enormously effective. It appears to be reducing crime by nearly half.

It is called the Phoenix Project.

24-year-old Matthew Rainey is being trained in carpentry by Ryan Lynch with the Conservation Corps of the North Bay.

"My family was used to seeing me going down the wrong road for many years," Rainey says.

The Conservation Corps is one of many partners in the new Marin City crime-fighting effort founded by Felecia Gaston.

"Every time I picked up the newspaper, I would read about robberies at the bus stop, robberies in the community, vandalism, gun shots," she says.

Rainey is just one of her success stories. He has come a long way from San Quentin prison.

Asked what landed him in prison, Chris Grayson recalls, "A bunch of violations of probation, sales of narcotics, just trying to get fast money not realizing the consequences, not realizing there's opportunities out there."

Grayson also served time in San Quentin. He is 24 and now has a future thanks to the Phoenix Project. He was connected with Earl Dent, owner of the On-Location Mobile Detailing Company in San Rafael.

Grayson and Rainey are among dozens of young men in the Phoenix Project of Marin. It has been so successful that a preliminary report shows area crime statistics decreased 42 percent in the first six months after the program started.

"When one of the sheriff's deputies was sitting in his vehicle and he was shot at, it was like that was my call to action then," Gaston recalls.

Gaston's call to action quickly resulted in the creation of the Community Connection Center, created in the heart of the housing project.

"What can the Phoenix do for you? Do you have your driver's license, social security card? Do you have birth certificate, all the necessary documents that you need in order to proceed in life?" Gaston explains.

Outreach workers help young men, age 13 to 25, sign up for services including mentoring, counseling, computer training, college courses, support navigating through the court system and most importantly, jobs and housing.

"We were surprised to learn about 25 percent of these 30 to 40 kids we're working with are truly homeless," says Dan Nackerman, executive director of the Marin Housing Authority.

Gaston says, "Dan provided the space, the actual facilities, the resources, staff."

A dozen strategic partners were invited to work with the Phoenix Project including law enforcement.

Lt. Cheryl Fisher with the Marin Sheriff's Department says, "If it just changes the life of one, then we've been successful really."

The Marin Board of Supervisors helped get the Phoenix Project rolling with some discretionary money.

"Marin Community Foundation donated $50,000. The county supervisors donated $50,000. We're kind of piece-mealing in some HUD funding," Nackerman explains. "So, it cost us $100,000 to $200,000 a year, which is kind of a shoestring budget."

That investment means that Rainey and his brother Joshua are learning a trade and going to school. One of the neighbors in Marin City says the Phoenix Project has changed things dramatically.

"At night, before, it used to be really noisy. Now, through the night time, it's more quiet," one woman says.

"The gunshots have ceased. The loud activity has gone down in this area," Gaston says. "The more people we get out to work, then the less people we have hanging out."

Dent says, "It means young men, young black men, will have a chance to get out in the world and be successful."

"They're helping me with housing. They're helping me stay focused on taking care of business," Grayson says.

"If I was actually able to come out here and do some kind of work for the community, then maybe I'd be able to influence other individuals that hang around here to want to come and participate in the work that we're doing," Rainey says.

Funding for the Phoenix Project ends next week, but its leaders are hoping to keep it going as a model for the Bay Area. Visit the Phoenix Project website to help.


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