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VOL. 123 | NO. 155 | Friday, August 8, 2008

Experts Explain Movement of Crime

By Bill Dries

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NOT LISTENING: City Housing & Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb, center, rejects the idea that the city’s crime problem can be linked to the demolition of public housing projects. Lipscomb told City Council members this week it is an attempt to “criminalize” the poor, who were already “marginalized” by public housing projects. – PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

The crescent has moved, according to maps and charts the Memphis City Council examined this week.

The crescent symbolizes the city’s highest crime areas, according to police statistics that coincide with maps showing the parts of the city where foreclosures are frequent, poverty is prevalent and dense low-income apartment complexes as well as lots of poorly maintained rental housing are situated.

University of Memphis criminology professor Dr. Richard Janikowski and University of Memphis sociologist Dr. Phyllis Betts presented the statistical analysis using information compiled by The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com, and real estate information company Chandler Reports.

It followed an account of the analysis in The Atlantic Monthly magazine that examined the city’s crime problem for a national audience. The article specifically examined how the city’s use of the federally funded Hope VI program to demolish public housing and relocate public housing residents through the use of federal “Section 8” housing vouchers has played a role in the movement of crime.

“This isn’t about Hope VI. This isn’t about vouchers,” Betts began in her presentation. “We know that Memphis has a high poverty rate and what we are focusing on is its decentralization in Memphis and how we may need to start thinking a little bit differently about that.”

Crime has busy feet

The maps and charts show that a crescent of high crime areas once running from the city’s northwest to southwest is now more of a northeast to southeast crescent.

GET REAL: Memphis City Council member Harold Collins said data showing movement of the city’s poor and movement of its crime patterns shouldn’t be dismissed. “We need to be real about our own issues,” he said at a council committee session this week. – PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Linking one of the Herenton administration’s major policy initiatives to the city’s crime problem proved to be such a controversial topic within City Hall that the council’s list of committee meetings for the day had to be reworded. The original version listed the topic of the session as a discussion about crime and Hope VI. That was changed to “discussion of population shifts and crime.”

Despite the change in heading, the charts and maps drew an angry response from Robert Lipscomb, director of the city’s Housing & Community Development division. Lipscomb has been the driving force behind the replacement of the public housing projects with mixed-income communities through Hope VI federal funding.

“I’m a little irritated now,” Lipscomb began after the presentation by Betts and Janikowski. “The spike in crime occurred a long time before the demolition of public housing started.”

Lipscomb said the Depression era and post World War II housing projects “marginalized” the city’s poor. And he said the effort to link the movement of those residents out of what used to be the projects is an attempt to “criminalize” the poor.

“When you talk about the issue of crime, let’s talk about people not having jobs when all of the jobs that are labor intensive have been transferred out of the country,” Lipscomb said. “I don’t need any data to tell me what’s going on in this city. I feel it every day. We’ve got to stop putting a Band-Aid on this issue. … The problem in Memphis is a black and white problem. ... We’ve got a lot of people that we’re marginalizing folks. We’re not giving them a chance.”

But council member Harold Collins wasn’t willing to dismiss the data.

“We need to be real about our own issues. Let’s deal with it,” said Collins, who is a special assistant to Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons. “This councilman will not shrink for the sake of what’s politically ethnically correct. We have to call it and say it as it is.”

Council member Wanda Halbert said the problem is more than statistics on a page.

“There are a lot of us sitting at the table who live in the middle of this. … We live where people are being affected by this issue,” she said. “Nobody is reinvesting into the lives of those families and their communities. … A lot of my family grew up in the housing projects. Today, there’s a big difference between the way I live and the way they live. I still love them. But the struggle is poor education in their neighborhood.”

What the numbers say

Betts and Janikowski said the data that show some connection between the movement of poor Memphians and new crime hot spots is not meant as a judgment.

“This is the same place where we need to be doing other types of things,” Betts said. “It’s an opportunity. We have a limited amount of low-cost housing in Memphis and Shelby County where people with vouchers can go. We know where those places are. That’s typically not where we are doing our outreach services.”

It is a connection that, according to Janikowski, “has real implications for economic development.”

“We’re dealing with a new distribution of where criminal activity is occuring in the city,” said Janikowski, whose statistics and analysis are an integral part of the Memphis Police Department’s citywide Blue CRUSH anti-crime effort. “And we have to, I think, deal with it, to figure out what interventions, particularly site-based interventions, we can begin looking at.”

Most of those programs are now based in inner-city neighborhoods.

There are 21,000 Memphians on the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, Lipscomb said.

This is not the first time the council has discussed a link between crime hot spots and the movement of citizens out of public housing. The issue was raised in 2007 by then-council members TaJuan Stout Mitchell and Dedrick Brittenum, who have since left the council. Mitchell and Brittenum quizzed Lipscomb about a connection based on calls they had from constituents. As he did this week, Lipscomb vehemently denied a link, saying some citizens were unfairly assuming a link between the presence of Section 8 residents and crime.

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