Gang-plagued areas in Islip Town have received $300,000 in state funds to help prevent youth from getting involved in criminal activity, Assemb. Phil Ramos announced.
Ramos (D-Brentwood) promoted a “holistic” effort in addressing the gang problem at a news conference Thursday outside his district office in Brentwood, one that offers at-risk youth alternatives to gangs.
The recipient of the funding, the Uniondale-based nonprofit S.T.R.O.N.G. organization, which has helped battle gang issues across Long Island for the past 17 years, will use the money to open a new center and expand its services to Brentwood, Central Islip and Bay Shore, the communities hardest hit by gang violence in recent months.
“After-school programs are needed, but when a young person turns 18, the basketball team is not going to keep him out of trouble,” Ramos said. “Some of these crimes, murders that we’ve seen, have been committed by people 20, 21 years old.”
Similarly, he said, laws and enforcement are important, but they do not “solve the gang problem.”
Given the rise “in gang violence in our community, we’re seeing that this community is suffering from some social issues that need to be dealt with in a holistic manner,” Ramos said.
Rahsmia Zatar, who has been with S.T.R.O.N.G. for 12 years, and has served as executive director for the past five, said: “We are failing. When we have kids that feel that gangs are their only option, it is a sign of what we are not doing as a society, as a community.”
Zatar said the center will work with youth and parents as well as offer prevention and intervention programs, along with group and individual mental health counseling. Staff will include licensed social workers, case managers, and intervention and trauma counselors. The location of the center has not yet been determined.
On April 12, the mutilated bodies of four young men were found in a Central Islip park, sparking anger and fear in the community and among elected officials. Authorities have linked those killings to the MS-13 street gang.
More than a half-dozen MS-13 members were indicted in March in the September killings of two teenage Brentwood girls — Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens — and a fellow gang member.
Cuevas’ mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, stood with community activists at the news conference and welcomed the new initiative.
“I’m just happy that the program is in place. It is desperately needed,” Rodriguez said. “I’m happy to see that everybody is uniting as one to make this happen, to come to some type of solution.”
Zatar said gangs on Long Island are “a direct result of the segregation that the region is known for,” and that a lack of resources and opportunities, and sense of hopelessness for children growing up in poverty, “continue to fuel the loss of life” and are “at the core of gang crime, not immigration as our current administration would like us all to believe.”
Ramos also pointed to poverty as a precursor for gang involvement.
“Economic development and having a light at the end of the tunnel is very important,” Ramos said. “They need something where they can see themselves in a positive way.”
While policing can offer some prevention and security, Ramos said, “it’s not the cure-all for gang issues.”
He also mentioned an “anti-gang” bill that passed on Monday in the State Senate aimed at increasing penalties for gang-related crimes. But he said another law “in itself, does not solve the gang problem.”
The bill is now in the hands of the Assembly.
“I extend a hand to other levels of government and urge them to also weigh in and to help work together, in a bipartisan manner, with us all to solve this problem. This is a people issue, not a partisan issue.”