Editor’s note: This article is another installment of “Invisible Walls,” an ongoing joint project of the Granite State News Collaborative, NH Business Review, Business NH Magazine and NH Public Radio that describes how exclusionary zoning laws have reinforced areas of persistent poverty, impacting many aspects of community life, including crime, public health, affordable housing and access to economic opportunity in Manchester. The team used Manchester as a case study, but the same sorts of exclusionary zoning practices present in Manchester are common across the state, and likely have had similarly broad effects.
RELATED STORY: The evolution of ‘Hot Spot’ policing in Manchester
MANCHESTER, NH – It was a brisk Thursday afternoon in January when longtime Manchester resident Carl Connor pointed to the spot where his son died.
It was in the middle of the road on Central Street between Maple and Beech streets. Here, the 40-year-old ex-con explained, his son Jaden Connor, 17, was shot in the back last June, while fleeing from an attempted robbery.
For Connor, the loss of his son is partly a consequence of disadvantages that rippled and worsened with generations of mental illness, crime and a lack of fatherly guidance.
“I don’t dwell on it because I know it’s not healthy,” Connor said. “I’ve pretty much processed the fact that I’m largely responsible for him going the wrong way in life.”
From ages 6 to 16, Jaden grew up with his dad behind bars. Connor was convicted in 2008 for dealing drugs and served about 11 years in federal prison.
Now, Connor tries his best to share the wisdom and love he rarely got from grown-ups when he was young, and which he regrets not being around to give to his own son, to disadvantaged youth starting to get into trouble in the Queen City. After Jaden’s death, Connor became a Street Outreach Worker for the MY TURN and its Project Connect program, which seeks to support young people, divert them from the justice system and set them up for success. Outreach workers like Connor mentor troubled youths and try to keep them from potential run-ins with the law.
“All I can do is what I’m doing at MY TURN,” Connor said. “I lost a son, but I found many more sons at MY TURN.”
Jaden had run-ins with law enforcement as a juvenile; he took after his old man in this way. Today, Connor is a sagacious and quiet man; a simple New England sports fan, a no-nonsense ride-share driver and an understated mentor to young people. But much of his life before was a winding course charted impulsively through chaotic waters.
Connor’s own father struggled with substance use disorder. He and Connor’s uncles were in and out of prison when Connor was young. Ultimately, his father died of an opioid overdose in a house on Manchester Street.
“I was dealing with police at a young age,” Connor said.
When the news reports a murder in the streets, it’s easy for people to cast the triggermen and even the victims as rough stereotypes. Bad people doing bad things and having bad things done to them in turn.
The reality is more complicated, of course. Around each individual is a potential storm of family members, friends, abuse, neglect, money problems, health problems, coping mechanisms and a flurry of negative influences that only serve to compound a person’s course. Studies of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) show that exposure to traumatic events, violence, economic instability and parental substance abuse can lead to more violent victimization and perpetration, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Looking back, it’s impossible to draw a line to a single cause. But the contours of a person’s family life are a big factor, Connor said.
“I see a lot of kids who have a rough family situation who do well in life, but for the most part they don’t,” Connor said.
Yet Connor knows it’s not too late for a lot of kids. It makes a big difference, he said, to have a father figure or a big brother to be that angel on their shoulder saying the right thing to do.
“Mainly what it is — our main role — is to just be there for them,” he said.
MY TURN was founded in 1984 and came to New Hampshire in 2004, according to Executive Director Allison Joseph. Its many programs include in-school drop-out prevention, post-secondary preparation and workforce prep.
It got its initial funding to stand up the Project Connect program from the Manchester Police Department. At the start of this year, the department allocated about $33,000 of federal grant money to the program. The funds were awarded for the department’s Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) program, which focuses on addressing violent crime and gun crime in the city.
Joseph said Project Connect also received about $5,000 in funding from the Comcast Cares Foundation, a grant extension from the state Office of Workforce Opportunity and $7,500 from the Chandler’s Angels Initiative. Most of the funding for Project Connect pays for the staffing of two Street Outreach Workers. Some of it also helps to furnish and maintain a drop-in center where young people can hang out and play games.
Conversations between the police and MY TURN began around 2018, when the PSN initiative launched, Joseph said, but Project Connect didn’t start in earnest until January 2022. While police are hoping the money will be put to good use in reducing crime, MY TURN is operating separately from law enforcement.
“I would say maybe two years ago our staff started meeting because we had seen a tremendous and very abrupt increase in violent incidents that our students were a part of,” Joseph said. “Whether they had used a firearm, or had been shot or been stabbed.”
The program serves young people between the ages of 18 and 24, with occasional exceptions. Mentors with the program reach out to young offenders, victims or witnesses of crime, and work with court-involved youth or youth with risk factors for future court involvement to divert them away from the justice system, according to Joseph. The idea is to focus on prevention.
Joseph said she has helped young people avoid harsher sentences by explaining to judges on the young person’s behalf all the things the young person is doing to stay out of trouble, improve their lives, and give back to the community.
Often, Joseph said, a judge is more likely to accept this from an adult advocate like herself than from a youth representing themselves in a courtroom.
Project Connect is not the only example of a youth-centric crime prevention effort that the police department has gotten involved with. The Manchester Police Athletic League (MPAL), an after-school program that connects cops and kids to provide academic and athletic mentorship, is another notable example.
But Lt. Matthew Barter, who serves as the department’s chief of staff, said Project Connect is more of a precision tool.
“Essentially, the concept is to direct outreach efforts towards those who are disproportionately involved in violence in Manchester. This doesn’t only mean offenders, but those who are often around these crimes,” Barter said.
He said outreach workers like Connor have much more credibility than police officers with these young people, and will likely be more successful in dissuading them from making bad choices.
“Also, when we see back-and-forth retaliatory violence issues that pop up, outreach workers have established networks that they can reach out to and perhaps interject some reasonable dialogue that can break those cycles of violence,” Barter said.
Volunteer outreach worker Joseph Lascaze said this has played out only in small instances so far, where he and other outreach workers have been able to talk to individuals who are angry and keep them from acting out.
He said it’s important to note that MY TURN outreach workers may get tips from police, but they don’t betray the confidences of their mentees to law enforcement. Gaining the trust of these young people is key to the whole endeavor, he said.
The Manchester Police Department began its data-driven CompStat360 program in the spring of 2021. CompStat360 is a national program meant to help law enforcement use data to identify specific problems, solutions and lessons learned, with the idea that even small adjustments to community practices and mild course corrections can alleviate crime with minimal negative impacts.
That’s when the department started to hear a great concern about youth involvement in crime and specifically gun crime, according to Barter.
Police continue to use data to inform their enforcement strategies, but they are now also using it to feed intel to MY TURN, so the organization can know about individual youths that have been involved in a violent crime.
“We use the data to identify individuals who have numerous involvements with violent crime (not just suspects, but also victims, witnesses, or being otherwise involved),” Barter said. “We then provide those names to Project Connect as referrals. The outreach workers then go out and try to make those positive connections.”
Barter said the greater CompStat360 program is about finding ways to address some of the social ills in the neighborhoods, such as addiction, without resorting to arrests.
“This approach is different than only focusing on enforcement, but it is one that seems to have resonated well with the officers. It is the realization that arrest isn’t always the answer,” Barter said. “It is also understood by officers that the traditional criminal justice system probably isn’t the best route for those with substance use disorder. When officers continually deal with the same individuals who struggle with [substance use disorder] it becomes clear that arrest after arrest does not solve the problem.”
The program’s predecessor was developed out of New York City and adopted by large cities across the world. In September, state authorities released a statement crediting the program for removing a chronic violent offender named Michael Francis, an alleged street gang member, from the streets. Francis was federally indicted and arrested on Sept. 1. Police seized four guns, 400 grams of suspected fentanyl and 400 grams of suspected methamphetamine.
The most recent addition to the Project Connect program is its drop-in center in Manchester.
“That’s brand new. We just opened that up (in January),” Joseph said.
The center is, as the name implies, a place where young people can drop in, without an appointment or scheduled class. Joseph said the idea is to give youth a place to hang out, have fun and express their creativity. It includes an Xbox, an Oculus virtual reality system, foosball, air hockey, cornhole and other games. There’s a classroom area, a meditation room, a kitchen and a small gym area.
Recently, Joseph said they installed a recording studio for kids who are interested in music, like Michael “Mikey” Caterson, 19.
Caterson said he got connected to MY TURN originally through the organization’s HiSET program, the state high school equivalency test. After that, the organization helped him find a place to stay when he was at risk of becoming homeless a few weeks ago.
“The people here, they’re highly supportive. I’d say they do nothing but go out of their way to make sure you’re set, to make sure you’re well being is good,” Caterson said.
Setting the music studio up was Caterson’s suggestion originally. His goal is to create rap music with his stage name Yxng Trini, and produce other artists’ work through his label King Mentality. He dropped a new single on Valentine’s Day called Relay Love.
“In all honesty, the sound studio has probably been the biggest draw for the students to come in,” Joseph said.
Ophelia Burnett is not officially working for MY TURN, but she’s connected with many of those involved. Burnett is a formerly incarcerated woman who grew up in inner-city Manchester, where she knew Connor. Today she’s a Healing Justice Organizer for the American Friends Service Committee and studying to get her law degree, but she can still relate to what young people in Manchester are going through.
“Young people have the best opportunity for a safe and healthy life when we invest in community programs and services which support their well-being, such as great education, mental health care, good wages, affordable housing, and positive activities,” Burnett said. “These investments will support them to make positive choices. And will help them to know that we value them.”
Joseph Lascaze echoed this. Lascaze spent 13 years in state prison and is now a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire trying to enact policies that will reduce the state’s incarceration rate and combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
He’s also a Street Outreach Worker like Connor, but he’s not employed by MY TURN. Instead, he’s volunteering his services and mentoring youths through his own nonprofit CONstruct.
“I see the work that (the police are) doing and I think that they’re going about it the right way, but it’s just going to take time,” Lascaze said of the department’s support of MPAL and MY TURN. “We’re not going to undo decades and decades of police traumas overnight.”
Connor said he isn’t overbearing with the young people. Their mistakes are theirs to make, but he tries to gently steer them to a smarter direction, and sometimes it works.
He remembers one instance recently when he was driving a young man to work at a fast-food restaurant. The young man became overwhelmed and discouraged and said he would just skip work.
“Why not just go to work?” Connor said. And that was enough. The young man stuck with it.
“We just, like, love the kids. We support them and we love them, and if they hit a roadblock we don’t kick them out of the program,” Joseph said.
The future of the program is not in doubt, Joseph said, but its funding is up in the air. The $33,000 grant from the police is due to run out by the fall, perhaps sooner. Joseph said she expects there will be other community partners willing to keep the program going, and they intend to apply for grants if all else fails.
Meanwhile, the Manchester Police Department is planning on doing a thorough evaluation, probably at the end of the year the earliest, of the program’s success at reducing violent youth crime. If they see signs of success, Barter said they will explore other grant opportunities or funding sources to extend or expand the program.
“The goal will be to identify longer-term project funding once we have some data that can support the efforts,” Barter said.
Joseph said future funding will help with meeting physical needs of young people like food and shelter is part of the program, but she said the primary thing they do is meet their emotional needs, by being there for them and telling them they can do anything.
“A lot of these kids grow up in chaos,” Joseph said. “Carl is very similar to a lot of these kids, which makes him a great mentor.”
Connor said being a mentor is about helping young people understand the consequences of their actions, or at least protecting them from making certain decisions, the consequences of which can sometimes be unfathomable.
Consequence is at the forefront in Connor’s mind, especially as he views that spot on Central St. He thinks about all the decisions he made when he was young.
“You don’t realize it can affect your children down the line,” Connor said. “Until it does.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.