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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Gang Membership Can Cost You, But A Fort Worth Group Offers Help

While violence is usually the big concern with gang membership, financial hardship is a consequence too. The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Fort Worth is working hard to remove financial barriers for gang members and former gang members.

When Juan Velazquez decided to join the 15th Street gang in Fort Worth, his thinking was simple. He’d immigrated to North Texas from Mexico a few years back and wanted to fit in with his cousins.

He was in fifth grade when he was initiated.

“Five, six people get around you and then they beat you up for a certain amount of seconds and you fight back for a certain amount of seconds until the seconds are over,” says Velazquez. “And then you prove your heart is with them.”

He Wasn't A Kid Anymore

Once he joined, everything changed. He was only allowed to wear black and gray and his free time was spoken for.

“I was no longer doing little kid things, I was no longer playing around. It was more of we’ve got to make sure nobody’s in our neighborhood trying to take over our place or nobody’s tagging on our fences,” Velazquez says. “Which is not something 11 year-olds should be doing.”

By the end of middle school, Juan had already gotten busted with marijuana and was ready for a change. He started going to the Boys and Girls Club at night, a program called Comin’ Up. He could play pool or basketball, talk to mentors or get tutoring. The program’s open to young people 13 to 24. The only requirement? You have to be involved in a gang.

“They just need someone who loves them unconditionally no matter what happens. If you go to jail, I love you. If you come out of jail I love you,” says Melvin C. Carter III, who helps run the program.

A Fresh Start

The city of Fort Worth started the program in 1994 and the Boys and Girls Club operates it. A big component is job training. Carter says they focus on high-demand positions like Certified Nursing Assistants and forklift operators.

Finding that kind of a job isn’t easy for gang members. There’s often a criminal record to fight past and Sherry Hudson, case manager for Comin’ Up, says even something as simple as a tattoo can derail a job search.

“If you have tattoos that are showing and you go to a job interview you have no idea what that person is going to think. And if public image is important, you’re probably not going to get hired,” says Hudson. “And the tattoo, the thing is it may not even be a gang affiliated tattoo, but the potential employer doesn’t know that.”

Removing Tattoos And Financial Barriers

The program has its own solution to the tattoo problem. Contract out and get them removed.

“Especially guys who’ve been incarcerated who have tattoos on their face,” says Carter. “Like I tell them, the only place you can get employed is at a tattoo shop with that on your face.”

Comin’ Up takes an interesting approach to gang membership. You’re not forced to leave. That might actually be more dangerous than staying in.

“When you try to change your life and do something positive, the neighborhood looks at you in a different light and sometimes they give you that pass,” says Carter. That says ok, this kid is trying to move forward and do something positive, let’s let him have a pass.”

Juan Velazquez got that pass, he doesn’t consider himself a member of 15th Street anymore. He’s 25 now and works as a welder. He likes it, and the money is good. When he was an active gang member, holding onto cash was tough.

“There’s your drugs, your beer, your friends that need money for some sort of reason, people that get caught up and need money on books, bail money, funerals,” says Velazquez.

A financial obligation no young person should have to worry about.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.