CLEVELAND, Ohio – Street fights were common in John Kyles' Union-Miles neighborhood. Teens often had no jobs or after-school activities; some filled the time partly by finding the next turf battle.
One day, Kyles was jumped by several young men. He and his friends responded with an old-fashioned beat down.
Then one of the strangers pulled out a semi-automatic handgun.
"I'm 15, the dude who pulled out the gun was like 20 years old. He stuck it in my face," said Kyles. "Three months later, I got my first gun... It just carried on from there."
Kyles was convicted as a teenager for carrying a concealed weapon. Then, as an adult, he was sentenced to prison for 16 months on a witness intimidation charge rising from "a block-to-block beef" between young people with a long-standing feud.
That was typical of his part of Benham Avenue, he said. "Most of the people over there had to fight. And most of the youth around there were stealing cars, carrying guns, [and] fighting."
Now 22, Kyles is committed to turning his life around. But few employers want to hire a convicted felon.
Stories like his begin to show why, in Cleveland and across the country, leaders of violence-interruption efforts see jobs as a vital part of the solution, and why the solutions can be so hard to implement.
High rates of idleness (neither work nor school) among teens are associated with higher rates of violence in many Cleveland neighborhoods and in some inner-ring suburbs, according to an analysis by Claudia Coulton, co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University.
"This does not mean that all idle youth are violent," she said. "However, it does suggest that neighborhoods where youth have trouble getting jobs and staying in school may be breeding grounds for youth violence. Undoubtedly, the relationship runs in both directions because youth exposed to violence may be more likely to not attend school and not be employed."
Coulton's analysis is based on five years of census and juvenile court data, from 2010 through 2014, covering teens aged 16 to 19.
See: Research shows link between joblessness and youth violence: Pathways to Peace
Her conclusions match the experiences of many local teens.
Jaylyn Wade-Page, 17, once passed his after-school hours smoking marijuana and hanging out with friends. His grades plummeted from As to Fs.
Then he went through rehab, boosted his grades, and got a job at Panera Bread in University Circle, through Face Forward 2, a Volunteers of America program for non-violent juvenile offenders. Wade-Page entered the program after a probation violation for criminal trespassing.
See:Volunteers of America offers youth offenders second chances and more: Pathways to Peace
"Before, whenever I got out of school, I had nothing to do, so I would just hang around," he said. "When you hang around, trouble tends to come your way. With a job, I can stay out of the way of it. Making money and staying out of the way – that's a good combination."
Shakela Hobbs, 19, lives in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood. In terms of crime, she's only been a victim. She was jumped and beaten once by a group of boys who were mistakenly convinced she was in support of one of their rivals. Even so, she's struggled to find work. She believes employers hold her neighborhood against her, some remembering the riots half a century ago.
"They think everybody is shooting and into drugs and gangbanging," said Hobbs. "They see I live in Hough, and they think, I am not about to hire this girl. She probably gangbangs and fights too, but I am not that type of person."
A Call to Focus on Roughest Areas
Some city officials also see clear public-safety benefits to helping teens find work.
Blaine Griffin, Cleveland's Community Development director, is convinced of the correlation between idleness and the potential for violence. He said in 2010 and 2011, when the summer jobs program in Cuyahoga received federal stimulus funding, "to make sure that every young person who wanted a job was able to have summer employment," homicides in the city declined.
"I will tell you that that was the most quiet, most peaceful summer," Griffin said.
City Council member Zack Reed, representing the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, said it is promising that violent crime arrests fell by 43 percent among participants in a program in Chicago that increased summer jobs for young people in areas with high violence rates, according to a Department of Labor evaluation.
He'd like to see Cleveland's business community raise $1 million to fund about 500 new summer jobs this year.
"We need to target that money and those youths in the most violent areas of the city," Reed said. "If we are able to do that, then we would be able to gauge whether or not this would work here."
Reed's remark highlights one of the problems with the jobs-and-safety debate pertaining to Cleveland: A lack of clear evidence. Here, at least, there has been no rigorous study of the differences among the lives of individual teens with and without jobs.
Coulton's analysis for The Plain Dealer explored differences at the neighborhood level.
She found that rates of idleness and violent crime were significantly higher in Cleveland than in the suburbs of Cuyahoga County.
The most afflicted Cleveland neighborhoods include Glenville, Collinwood-Nottingham and West Boulevard.
The suburbs with the highest rates of idleness and violence include East Cleveland, Euclid and Garfield Heights.
But as with most statistics about human behavior, there are caveats.
"A footnote is that not all violent events get noticed by the police," Coulton said.
In high crime areas, she said, residents may be reluctant to report crime for a variety of reasons, ranging from fear to a numbness caused by hearing of, or witnessing, so many incidents.
In many areas with lower crime rates, underreporting could stem from police practices.
"Police have some discretion whether to bring those violent charges to the Juvenile Court," Coulton said. "We know that in the suburbs, they may not be as willing to bring violent charges over to Juvenile Court. In the suburbs, they may try to do something locally."
Defensive Shell is Misinterpreted
Another confounding fact, Coulton said, is that people who grow up in violent areas often are so traumatized that their behavior changes, in ways that can discourage employers from hiring them, or keeping them.
"They may have defensive behaviors ... that may be hard for employers to deal with," Coulton said. "Those behaviors really don't work that well for them in order for them to get a job or take in training."
Eric Traylor, Jr., 18, who lives in the Garden Valley section of Cleveland, was caught between feuding groups of young people as an innocent bystander, and shot.
"I have been told I had a mean mug when I talk to certain jobs," he said. "I told them it was my natural face. You could be qualified for this job, but a company won't hire you because they feel threatened by you and how you presented yourself."
It can take hard work to change those behaviors. Traylor was a job seeker for two years when he went to the Ohio Means Jobs|Cleveland-Cuyahoga County's Youth Resource Center. He credits what he learned there for helping him land a job as a cook in a downtown club.
Dontez White, a career development counselor with the Volunteers of America's employment program for non-violent youth ex-offenders, said he often has to help young people project a more inviting demeanor.
"I am not a violent person, but by growing up in the inner city, I know what it means to develop a shell," said White, who was raised in Glenville. "You have to put up a face. There is a work face and a neighborhood face. I tell them, 'You could still be yourself, but you are going to have to learn how to step outside of that comfort zone. Let your guard down just a little bit for someone to help you.'"
Teaching Better Communication
Staff at the nonprofit Towards Employment organization often have to teach young people to be less wary and more communicative, according to Melanie Green, its youth services coordinator, assigned to Ohio Means Jobs. Daily life has pushed many of them into a defensive stance.
"You always have to watch your back," Green said. "You always have to be aware of your environment. You can't just look someone in the eye. That is considered a threat. You can't have a conversation because that might be viewed as challenging somebody.
"We know often enough, people lose their positions for tardiness or absenteeism, but also because of misunderstandings," she said. "They are not able to communicate. You have to be able to sit down and have a conversation with your supervisor instead of getting angry, blowing up and walking off."
To help people from traumatized backgrounds stay employed, agencies often emphasize one-on-one interaction with clients.
Volunteers of America case manager Tiffany Greathouse, encourages clients to speak openly to staff about what is going on in their lives, so they can work through problems together.
"A lot of times they have not had that kind of support they needed -- even from their parents," she said.
Plain Dealer reporters John Caniglia and Jo Ellen Corrigan contributed to this report.