CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A taxpayer-funded program aimed at helping reduce crime, resolve conflict and offer opportunities for kids largely failed to reach two of the deadliest parts of Charlotte over the last year and a half, a WCNC Charlotte investigation concluded.
In response, the City of Charlotte acknowledged some areas could use more attention.
Mayor Vi Lyles touted the Jumpstart Micro Grant Program as an innovative way to address Charlotte's violence, but a WCNC Charlotte analysis of program records found two of the city's "priority" ZIP codes received limited funding.
Police records show the cross-town ZIP codes of 28205 (which includes Villa Heights, NoDa, Plaza Midwood and Windsor Park) and 28217 (which includes Yorkmount) are responsible for almost 20% of the city's murders since 2020, yet Jumpstart closeout reports show the program mostly funded community work in five other parts of town.
"Why does it continue to be a problem?" Freedom Fighting Missionaries Founder and Executive Director Kenny Robinson asked. "If we don't call them out on these things, then things will never change."
Robinson's organization received a $1,000 Jumpstart grant, which he used to raise thousands of dollars more in donations for a program he called "Backpack to Success." The money supplied 25 men and women, released from jail after finishing a reentry program, with smartphones and an unlimited 30-day wireless subscription, a rideshare gift card, pre-paid debit card, basic supplies and in some cases, even laptops.
"These are the things that you need if you're going to begin your reentry process," Robinson said. "That instills hope and we have determined that hope can supersede almost any obstacle or barrier that we're faced with out here."
Since its creation in 2018, the city reports Jumpstart has given more than 200 grassroots community groups and small non-profits a combined $500,000, "touching more than 37,000 people with programs and services."
Most recently, the city hoped to reach people in ZIP codes deemed priorities, including 28216 (which includes Beatties Ford, Lincoln Heights, Washington Heights, Oakview Terrace, University Park, Oakdale, Wedgewood, Mountain Island), 28208 (which includes Westerly Hills, Enderly Park, Thomasboro/Hoskins and Ashley Park), 28213 (which includes Hidden Valley and College Downs), 28206 (which includes Druid Hills South, Sugar Creek and Lockwood), 28205, 28217, 28273 (which includes Yorkshire and Griers Fork) and 28212 (which includes Eastland/Wilora Park, Idlewild Farms, North Sharon Amity/Reddman Road and East Forest). Program records show grants primarily supported community efforts in 28216, 28208, 28213, 28206 and 28212.
"It's just simply not enough funding to support a viable program in that area," Robinson said. "Some of the high crime areas are tougher to work in. The organizations that serve those areas typically receive less funding."
Action NC Political Director Robert Dawkins said it's critical the city learns from this program, especially since Charlotte recently ended Jumpstart and graduated to Safe Charlotte, a program with larger grants and more potential.
"There's a lot of groups that just wouldn't apply," Dawkins said of Jumpstart. "I think the city needs to learn from it on how can we reach out and get more grassroots groups involved."
Dawkins said this doesn't just fall on the city though.
"The community needs to learn that any way that I can get an in to build what I can do to get larger money, I should accept to do," Dawkins said.
Jumpstart served as an introduction to the world of grant writing for some; a way for organizations and groups to gain the confidence and know-how they need to secure more money down the road.
"It's made a modicum of difference," Dawkins said of the program overall.
City records show while some Jumpstart grants went specifically toward crime prevention, most focused on root causes like youth and parent opportunities. The program also funded efforts around conflict resolution and mediation, family stability and addressing racial segregation.
"This was a huge win for many," City of Charlotte Office of Equity, Mobility and Immigrant Integration Assistant Director Federico Rios said. "This afforded them the opportunity to get more grants and funding and be seen by others that they wouldn't have otherwise had the opportunity to do."
Rios said Jumpstart sparked the growth of community leaders and their organizations. He said those groups with influence in the community will go on to do even more to address Charlotte's challenges.
"It was a catalyst," Rios said. "There is even more expected of them with more dollars being allocated towards them."
Rios said the city aggressively marketed the program but admits some ZIP codes could use more attention.
"We established the fund, marketed the heck out of it and tried to get as many individuals knowledgeable about the process as possible. I can't force organizations to apply. I don't that as many organizations exist in those ZIP codes." he said. "We want to be able to serve our community at large. We don't want to limit ourselves and so, we want to build the capacity of the folks on the ground who are most proximate to the challenges that are being faced in our community."
"What can the city do to ensure that this money is spread out equally in the future?" WCNC Charlotte asked Rios.
"We will continue to ensure that all organizations in our community are cognizant and aware of the funding opportunities that we make available," Rios said. "Beyond that, we built out capacity for a lot of these groups and my hope is that a significant amount of them that are doing great work will continue to seek funding elsewhere to build out their ability to serve all of the ZIP codes in Charlotte."
Robinson knows a single interaction can make all the difference. When Robinson walked out of prison a free man after serving a decade for bank robbery at the age of 23, he started over with nothing, but then someone filled the void.
"I met a person who cared," he said.
Almost 10 years later, the student is now the teacher.
"That's why we started (Freedom Fighting Missionaries), so others wouldn't have to go through some of the basic obstacles that we had to," Robinson said of his non-profit.
Robinson is now ready for his next opportunity. He ended his involvement with Jumpstart after just one round, unable to commit the time needed for required Zooms and training.
"We're going to continue to advocate and push for equality in Charlotte," he said. "The opportunities are there, the problem is connecting to the opportunities."
Public records show the grants have directly impacted more than 12,000 people since summer 2020, with some only helping a few and others helping hundreds. The program, however, did not have a formal reporting process to track its overall success. Rios said the Safe Charlotte grant program, thanks to the help of the United Way and UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, does include added checks and balances.
"We want to be able to track data," Rios said. "We want to be able to say this program is effective and help them make the case for why they can get continued investment from other sources."
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