Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Week at Josephine Allen's Survey Site

This is a picture of the typical housing units, known as "gun-shot buildings".

Josephine Allen, known as "Happy Hills" to the residents, is located on the border of Mobile and Prichard. A three streets deep periphery surrounds the government housing project that is at the heart of the Happy Hills. The housing development has almost no trees, with rows of rundown, single- to double-floor apartment complexes that all look identical. Many are boarded-up or have broken windows. There is strange color paneling from the 1970s architectural design. In the center of the project, there is an overgrown baseball field with scraggly grass and a pavilion with grills and picnic tables. However, they looked completely unused and no children were playing on the baseball field. It is too hot and too run down to entice the children.

All the children congregate at the Boys and Girls Club located by the government housing office. The club has air conditioning, a ping-pong table, two pool tables, basketball, computers, video games, books and board games. It also serves lunch to the kids everyday but Sunday from 12 noon until 1 pm. Bulletin boards display pictures of the kids and activity sign-up sheets. There are also some field-trip sign-up sheets for the beach and museums in downtown Mobile. This was an oasis for kids and adolescents, a safe space to hang, out of oppressive summer heat. I was so happy this building existed for the kids.

In Happy Hills, we surveyed in one of the vacant housing units a block from the Boys and Girls Club. Earlier in the week, Cassie (our field coordinator) had to check-out the site and found that part of ceiling was caving in. They promised to fix it before we came but ended up giving us an apartment by the Girl Scouts housing unit. This unit was very hard to be in. The kitchen floor had glass from a broken window. The bedroom had a large office desk that took up the entire room. The bathroom could not be used and the air conditioner in the living room was broken. And there was a small air-conditioner unit in the kitchen that spat dust and smelled terrible. I felt very ill the first day from all the molds, dust and lack of cool air. This was the first time that I truly realized the importance of living in a safe household environment.

It was in this small apartment that we surveyed over 150 young people. We had groups in the living room, bedroom and kitchen, and young people that needed to be taken away from the larger groups because they were too slow took their surveys in the bathroom or out on the porch. It was miserably hot, and the kids were packed in for an hour and half. This survey setting really made me question how accurate our data collection would be from the site because the kids were just so hot and tired. Several times, I would catch kids just filing in the same letter for every question because they could not focus. We would try to make kids erase sections and re-read the questions for them but I am sure we did not catch every kid.

We checked kids in for the survey on the porch outside the apartment. Things ran smoothly for the first couple days but at the end of the week, word had got out that the "survey people" were in the neighborhood and the scamming began. Several kids that took the survey were found to be younger then 10. There was the fake name scam and the stolen name scam. Kids would make-up names or would steal their cousins or siblings names and take the survey twice.

We would not find-out until their siblings or cousins came to take it and we said they already took it. Some kids were really ingenious and got their parents or older friends to pretend to be their parents and consent them as a new participant. We even had some 20-25 year olds take it, with their girlfriends pretending to be their mothers. Most scams we could detect but we could not do anything about the newly consenting "parents" signing up their children. At the office, they could usually weed these surveys out by matching them with school records but we had to administer the survey to them and pay them the $15 for their time. Some of the 9 year-old scammers that we caught ended-up hanging out with us for the rest of the week.

We were constantly surrounded by younger boys, sitting on every surface. Some even helped us check kids in for the survey. The kids just wanted to feel like they were a part of something, like they had a job or a task at hand. It became apparent to me how much this survey really means to these communities. Professor John Bolland kept telling us that the communities see the MYS as a program, even though we are with their kids for less than 2 hours a summer. But I saw this materialize in front of my eyes. Kids who were not even old enough to participate hung-out with us all week, sometimes they would just sit with us. They just wanted to help-out the "survey people".

Two not-so-fun events happened at Happy Hills. First, the very kids that were hanging-out with us all week threatened one of the interns at the end of the day to give them all the left-over survey money. While she knew they would probably not hurt her, they said they would shoot her if she didn't give them the money. Luckily, the situation was diffused by Cassie coming to make sure the site was shut down for the day. But is was disheartening that our little buddies would do this and we realized that although the kids may be very sweet at times, we still need to be guarded.

The second event, happened when I was talking to a little old lady that always walked by our site. She would come and chat with me everyday to rest in the middle of her walk home from the store. She told me one day that her son was shot and killed in front of her and that her younger son swore he would go murder the man that had shot his older brother. She said she had to turn her younger son over to the police in order to save him from spending a life in prison for killing his brother's murderer. She just kept repeating "My poor heart done seen a lot of pain and grief. It's broke." Again, no words came to me. I just listened and mumbled that I was sorry and I couldn't imagine loosing a son. She said no mother should have her baby taken from her like that. The gun violence down here is just insane! I see so many kids answering "yes" to carrying a gun on the survey or witnessing people being shot or being shot at. It is a shocking reality that is appalling and has really made me think about the need for more stringent gun laws. While I know many Americans argue for more lax gun laws that embrace their right to carry and conceal a weapon... I can't believe that any American that saw the gun violence that these children witness, would stand for lax gun laws that put weapons in young people's hands.

While there were chaotic moments during the week, I enjoyed my time in Happy Hills. We left by giving the boys that helped us some money for the ice cream truck. It is strange to think that I will never see these kids again. I wonder about their futures... and pray that they believe they have a future. So many of the kids believe they do not have futures... especially the boys. They see older brothers and cousins consumed in gang life, drugs, in jail and sometimes killed. It's hard to imagine that this could be the future for these boys that played hand games and tic-tack-toe with us. I hope this does not become a reality for them, like it has for so many of their older family members.

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