Once Unsafe City Parks Blossom
With Help From Faith Community

by American News Service

INDIANAPOLIS (ANS) -- City parks once plagued by crime, drug use and prostitution have been reintegrated into community life after the parks department hit on the idea of turning them over to the care of local churches.

Along the way, homeless people have found jobs and homes and one church developed the expertise in maintenance to market its services elsewhere.

Frankie Tibbs, parks department grounds maintenance manager, said in looking for ways to solve the crime problem his department approached city churches and offered roughly $60,000 in maintenance contracts to those located near parks that would agree to take on their upkeep.

After three years, the partnership has eight churches overseeing 23 parks across the city. "One of the ideas behind the project was to get neighborhoods to reclaim the parks and re-establish community ownership," said Tibbs. A sign in each park posts the name and phone number of the church and pastor responsible for its maintenance.

Tibbs said church involvement was the key to tapping into a shared sense of responsibility for community property. Local residents now take an informal but active role in park policing while encouraging their neighbors not to "mess up" the park.

One such case is Shepherd Community Church in Southeast Indianapolis, which has integrated the maintenance of Willard and Highland Parks into its program of outreach efforts that also include maintaining a homeless shelter, clothing program and food kitchen.

Since Shepherd received a city park maintenance contract it has been able to offer employment to some neighborhood residents including some homeless people living in the parks. From spring to late fall, Shepherd workers pick up bottles, cans and trash, mow grass, do general caretaking of the parks and watch out for park safety.

According to church development director Rev. Jay Height, under the program, "We can offer shelter during the winter and employment with competitive wages and on-the-job training the rest of the year. The work schedule is flexible, which is good for those who haven't had a full-time job in a while."

Shepherd hires five or six people to work full-time for the length of the contract, as well as an additional five to ten during a shorter period in the summer. According to Height, four out of five full-time workers hired last year are no longer homeless.

The project paid another dividend for Shepherd. Because of its experience in maintaining the parks, the church received a contract from a local bank to maintain the property at all its branches. Neighborhood youths are hired to do the work, and the bank helps them to invest their pay by offering free savings accounts. Profits from the contract are used to support Shepherd's children's programs.

Both the parks department and the churches praise the success of the partnership. "It works well for us," says Height. "We work hand in hand with the parks department and we both benefit."

Tibbs says the partnership is helping the city to save money, fight crime and improve the quality of city life. "It costs us much less to maintain the parks this way than if we were doing it ourselves. We've also created a sense of pride in the community. We're going to keep doing this as long as we can."

Posted: March 3, 1998
Copyright 1998 American News Service

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