BILLINGS — A recent surge in violence and its connection to a growing gang problem has the community of Billings looking for answers on how to stop the trend in its tracks.
The problem goes beyond Billings, connecting to nearby tribal nations, which are also dealing with gang violence.
"One of the things that these gangs know very well is that if they can get a vulnerable youth, male or female, they can influence them into doing some very violent things," said Charlene Sleeper, a Missing and Murdered Indigenous People organizer in Billings.
"They're looking for that sense of belonging, they're looking for that sense of family that they may not be receiving elsewhere, and that's one of the promises of gang life."
MMIP, domestic violence, youth crime—Sleeper's worker tracking violence impacting Indigenous people around the country leads her to tracking different trends, including tracking the connection between teen and adult gangs in Billings to nearby reservations, including the Northern Cheyenne and Crow.
“We don't have a very supportive public safety net on reservations and part of that is because there's a lack of funding for law enforcement," Sleeper said. "So what ends up happening is due to that lack of funding for law enforcement on tribal reservations in Montana, you'll get crime pockets that develop on reservation and spill over into surrounding areas. So then those surrounding areas like Hardin Billings, Sheridan, Rapid City—they end up having to overcompensate for the lack of services available in tribal nations."
For Sleeper, the issue of gang violence hits close to home.
“For myself, when speaking out about gang violence, I grew up in a family that was saturated with the gang mentality and part of being part of a gang and being part of a gang family is you're not allowed to be afraid. Fear is not an option. If you're afraid, then you're weak. So me speaking out, I'm not afraid because I just don't have it in me. It was really ingrained in me—no fear.”
Within a recent streak of homicides, Billings police have identified connections among suspects and gang activity. Billings Police Chief Rich St. John says the department has identified 17 adult gangs and seven juvenile gangs in the Billings area, with hundreds of members tracked by probation and parole.
Arrests made in recent homicide investigations include teenagers, showing the toll of teen gang violence is real.
“People are always like, 'the Billings Police department needs to do something,' which is true to an extent, but they're mostly intervention. They're not prevention. Prevention is more on the nonprofit organizations, the for-profit organizations, even the parenting groups, the various different youth groups, things like that. That's where community needs to come in and start building support in a way that catch these crime pockets before they even happen," Sleeper said.
Helping people navigate access to services like mental healthcare, substance abuse treatment, healthy housing and more, is the Billings Urban Indian Health and Wellness Center through the Native American Development Corporation.
Makayla Surrell and D'Anthony Willis both work directly with members of the community trying to get back on their feet.
“What we're seeing right now is a lot of individuals looking for housing, treatment programs for both chemical dependency and mental health, and really struggling to get that good quality program," said Makayla Surrell, project coordinator for the Native American Empowerment Project. "We specialize in culturally competent services, so even that is kind of difficult at this time.”
While the health and wellness center deals primarily with adults, they have seen a growing need to expand their services to younger clients, and have moved to include clients as young as 18.
"We see a lot of the broken homes that these teens are coming from and we do a lot with those parents," said D'Anthony Willis, a certified behavioral health specialist. "It's easier to break into the mind of a 13-, 14-, 15-, 16-year-old and help them unlearn and relearn new behaviors than it is someone who's been doing the same thing for 30 to 40 to 50 years. So we need more services for the youth all the way across the board.”
For nonprofit organizations doing prevention work, funding is often limited and bound to cycles of competition for different grants.
"I think that we have the resources, but lack of federal and state funding limits what they're able to do," Surrell said. "We work with some great organizational partnerships and they really truly care about Billings and our community. It's just the demand is so high they can't keep up. So that's definitely a huge barrier for all of our organizations."
As law enforcement and community leaders look at efforts to crack down on teen violence and a growing gang problem, they discuss the need for expanding the jail. Earlier this week, Yellowstone County commissioners discussed proposals to expand the jail through a taxpayer-funded bond. They expect this project could cost $80 million to $100 million.
Surrell, Willis and Sleeper hope the discussion also includes expanding ways to keep people out of jail in the first place.
"We support our police and our judicial system, we work closely with both, but true rehabilitation and prevention, I don't believe it's increasing our jail population," Surrell said. "I think that rehabilitation and community-based services, getting our youth, adults and multiple generations, the treatment and programming that they need will be able to break that generational trauma."
To learn more about the Billings Urban Indian Health and Wellness Center, you can visit their website here.