Hurricane of Violence in Indy

from, July 18th 2014

Jay Height was still reeling from one of the latest acts of gruesome violence inflicted on Indianapolis this summer when I caught up with him this past week.

Days earlier, police called to a Northwestside apartment complex found a woman beaten to death. With a hammer. Her boyfriend, a member of Height’s congregation, is accused of the crime.

After 19 years leading Shepherd Community Center on the Eastside, Height speaks with well-earned authority about the deep problems facing this city, from crime to education to joblessness. I asked Height whether, after all that time, he had grown more or less concerned about the city’s challenges. “More,” he said without hesitation.

“Indianapolis is being hit with a dry hurricane of violence,” Height said. “We need a disaster response.”

That hurricane, Height insists, is fueled by a deep sense of hopelessnes, a despair that’s both driven by and a consequence of crushing poverty.

“Poverty takes away your future orientation,” Height said. “If you don’t have a future, there’s no program that will work. You can’t hire enough cops to provide hope.”

Two sets of numbers back up Height’s point. A 2013 study by the Polis Center at IUPUIfound that the overall poverty rate in Marion County increased 89 percent from 2000 to 2012. The nation’s poverty rate, by comparison, grew 28 percent during that time. And the child poverty rate in Indianapolis has more than doubled in the past decade or so; about one in three children in our city live in poverty.

On a very much related issue, high school graduation rates in Indianapolis were abysmally low for many years. Almost a decade ago, I led a project that determined that Indianapolis Public Schools’ graduation rate was below 40 percent, and the completion rates for white, black and Latino boys were even worse. Graduation rates in some suburban township districts, schools that served many students who lived in the urban core, were barely above 60 percent at the time.

Thankfully, graduation rates have improved since then, but the thousands of teenagers who dropped out of high school a few years ago are now in their 20s and face almost impossible odds of finding jobs that will pay decent wages.

It’s a downhill progression with frightening consequences. No education means no job. No job means no money. No money means no hope. No hope means no concerns about the future, for yourself or someone you bump into on a crowded Broad Ripple street.

Like Height, the Rev. Charles Harrison has witnessed the cycle of violence play out repeatedly during his tenure leading Barnes United Methodist Church and the Ten Point Coalition. I asked him to share his thoughts about how to break that cycle.

“We must address the proliferation of illegal handguns and assault weapons on the streets,” Harrison said. “Too many young men with criminal (records) have handguns and assault weapons in their cars, and others have the handguns in their possession as they walk the streets.”

Although he acknowledged it would be controversial, Harrison proposed for Indy a version of New York City’s stop-and-frisk strategy.

“If we have to give up our personal rights to fly on airplanes for the good of public safety, why can we not accept some inconvenience in high crime areas for the good of public safety?” Harrison asked, adding that “I live in a high crime area.”

That, perhaps more than anything else, shows the level of desperation that Harrison and other leaders in this city feel as the homicide rate soars toward a level we haven’t seen since the 1990s.

Harrison offered three other potential solutions: increased mandatory sentences for gun crimes; more community policing; and increased efforts among black leaders to build stronger ties between the community and police. That last step is an attempt to establish some level of respect for law enforcement.

“This generation of young people does not have any respect for authority in general, and are much more willing to be confrontational with the police,” Harrison said.

Both Harrison and Height stressed the absolute necessity of the community to get involved on a face-to-face, person-to-person level.

“We all have a role to play, churches, nonprofits, businesses,” Height said. “The greatest thing that a church can do is to mentor a child. At some point, the community has to say this is our issue. We need to own it.”

Height brought back an idea proposed by a few community leaders a couple of years ago — to make Indy the “youth mentoring capital of the world.”

Unlike with auto racing or amateur sports, that’s not merely a marketing slogan. It’s meant to be a grass-roots response to an ongoing disaster — the “dry hurricane” that Height describes.

It’s also meant to restore hope. Something, in this summer of violence, this city desperately needs.


Swarens is The Star’s opinion editor. Email him at Follow him on Twitter: @tswarens.

Get involved

You can make a difference in a child’s life in as little as one hour a week. Here are steps you need to take to become a volunteer:

1. Assess your skills and resources to determine what you have to offer students.

2. Contact a local organization (a few are listed below) or a school in your area.

3. Agree to a criminal background check for the safety of the children.

4. Attend training.

5. Set aside at least one hour a week to volunteer.

6. Stay committed; the most fruitful relationships are built over time.

Where to help

Here is information on several effective organizations working to help children in our community:

•Help young readers: Students who struggle with reading are at high risk of failing in school and, without intervention, may drop out. Through ReadUP, a partnership between United Way and Indianapolis Public Schools, volunteers spend one hour a week working with IPS fourth-graders. Contact ReadUP at (317) 925-7323 or

•Help teach girls: Girls Inc. matches volunteers with girls ages 6 to 18. The program uses hands-on activities with structured follow-up sessions to maximize learning. Contact Girls Inc. at (317) 283-0086 or

•Help mentor parents: Trusted Mentors helps adults overcome poverty, underemployment, social alienation and incarceration. Contact Trusted Mentors at (317) 985-5041 or www.

•Tutor homeless students: Indianapolis Public Schools works with hundreds of homeless students. You can help these children with reading and homework either in homeless shelters or at an IPS school by serving with School on Wheels. Contact School on Wheels at (317) 202-9100 or

•Mentor a child: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana pairs volunteer mentors with children ages 8 to 14. Contact Big Brothers Big Sisters at (317) 921-2201 or

•Aid with college prep: Many students in Central Indiana hope to become the first in their families to attend college. You can help ensure they’re ready. The Starfish Initiative pairs college-educated mentors with academically promising students from low-income families. Contact the Starfish Initiative at (317) 955-7918 or

•Assist African-American youth: 100 Black Men of Indianapolis provides mentoring and other programs for students in Marion County. Contact 100 Black Men of Indianapolis at (317) 921-1276 or