Where Others Fear To Tread

V.J. Smith traded his gun for a Bible a decade ago. Now he runs the night watch on Central's troubled streets. The payoff? Amazing grace and a good night's sleep.

Which is to say that MAD DADS is all about preventing street crime. And that, according to the organization's national bylaws, means collaborating with law enforcement. Smith often trades favors with the MPD's Karen Skrivseth, who has been known to get out and walk the beat and, for that, earned high praise among neighborhood leaders. She is in the habit of reporting trouble to MAD DADS--drug dealing at 38th and Chicago; kids begging for food on Fourth; the recent flood of Detroit Boys gang members into Central. On that information, Smith's membership decides where to show up on any given night. In return MAD DADS makes a point of knocking on doors and chatting up residents with concerns about the boarded-up house next door, say, or gunfire last night, or vandalism in their alley; members then put them in touch with the right desk at the police department, and share information with Skrivseth.

The arrangement could sit wrong with Smith, but it doesn't. "The one thing I've learned in my life is that the past is the past," he insists. "If I was to dwell on the past, I would be pretty angry. I would be unable to have any kind of communication at all with anybody on the police department. But I don't think about the past. I think about the future."

 

At the end of August, when the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that V.J. Smith had won the Ameritech Award of Excellence in Crime Prevention, Mark-Peter Lindquist, who as director of the Center for Fathering works with hundreds of families in Central, told the newspaper that MAD DADS had already steered some 200 people to job-training programs and at least 100 more into chemical-dependency treatment.

Well-informed estimates like Lindquist's notwithstanding, there are no hard numbers available to chart whether MAD DADS' approach is working. The evidence is entirely anecdotal--stories down the grapevine of a young man who returned to school, another who went clean and started a new job last week. The national leadership has hired a New Orleans consulting firm to assess the effectiveness of its programs, but that report isn't due until sometime next year. No such study is planned locally. Still, there is a sense among even the most skeptical of neighborhood mainstays--such as Wizard Marks, who has been living on Oakland Avenue for almost 25 years--that a positive adult presence on the pavement is just what's needed to keep Central on track and its young people out of harm's way. "I think what MAD DADS is doing can only help," Marks says. "Sure, they might only get to one troubled kid in 20, but that's one less you have to contend with. V.J. is a black man with some been-theres and done-thats. I say, more power to him."

One of those kids, a 17-year-old named Tim, is leaning against the wall outside Cup Foods at the corner of 38th and Chicago. Smith says things are slow at the intersection this Saturday night. When it's warmer there are usually more young men from the neighborhood out and about, huddled around each other's cars, some selling, some buying, some just looking to blow off a little steam. Smith figures it's a good place for MAD DADS to put down stakes for a half-hour or so. On an opposite corner, in the parking lot of a SuperAmerica, a silver Suburban idles by the pump, packed with white teens who, he guesses, have driven in from the southern suburbs to score drugs. Across the street from them, three prostitutes lean on a bus bench, halfheartedly trying to flag tricks.

Smith, Howard, Fliehs, Declouet, and the rest are passing out flyers, pressing the flesh, trying to engage the teenagers who are milling in and out of the corner grocery. After a while the crowd thins and the 13 MAD DADS on tonight's patrol get ready to move on. As Smith walks away, Tim--his eyes quickly scanning the sidewalk to see if anyone's watching--signals for him to come over. He and Smith huddle for a few minutes. Tim gestures frantically with his hands. Smith just listens, a hand on the boy's shoulder. Eventually Smith calls Howard over to join the discussion. Arms entwined, the three form their own prayer circle. Smith says "amen," gives Tim a hug, then moves on to the next stop.

Later he tells Tim's story. Seems the young man had just earned $650 on a temp job. He'd pocketed $50, and given the rest to his girlfriend, after which she'd locked him out of her house, where he'd been staying. "His heart's broken--he's been on the street for three days. So I told him where to go get cleaned up, get a good meal," Smith says, seeming to stare into his own past again. "He's just lonely, man. You know what that's like? I know what it's like. I think we all do."

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