People don’t usually view a full dumpster as a sign of progress. But for one organization in Detroit, a full dumpster means positive change for neighborhoods working to solve the problem of blight and the crime that often comes with it.

On October 1st, volunteers from the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project (an initiative of Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies) joined residents of Detroit’s MEC neighborhood (Morningside, East English Village and Cornerstone) to clean up and secure the area around Radnor Street and Warren Avenue. Armed with a 20 yard roll off dumpster donated by Budget Dumpster, the volunteers spent the day removing debris from streets and properties, clearing away brush and weeds, and boarding up vacant structures.

According to DeShawn Singleton, Program Coordinator and Research Analyst for AMUS at Wayne State University, cleanups like this serve two vital purposes. First, they give residents a greater sense of pride in and ownership of their neighborhood. Second, they reduce crime by removing elements like concealing brush and vacant houses that make an area attractive to criminals.

The AMUS Approach

Members of the Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies created the AMUS initiative in 2009 with a Public Safety grant from AmeriCorps. Initially, they set their sights on the Midtown neighborhood, compiling data on the types of crime prevalent there.

After data analysis and collaboration with local law enforcement, AMUS set out with a variety of initiatives designed to work together to create safer and more engaged communities. Community cleanups and board-ups would deprive criminals of cover for their activities. VIN etchings for neighborhood vehicles would lessen the likelihood of thieves targeting the area. Through the Home Safety Assessment program, AMUS would provide free deadbolts, LED lights and other safety equipment to residents, making the community even less attractive to criminals.

AMUS volunteer making a VIN etching.

Image: AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project

AMUS logoSay for instance, there’s an area where there’s a lot of larcenies going on or a lot of burglaries. We disseminate leaflets and literature on how to keep yourself safe… We’ll tag cars of people who leave items out, leave them a little note and let them know: this is not good. You’re more likely to be a target this way.

DeShawn Singleton | Program Coordinator; Research Analyst
Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies

Perhaps most important were the Block Clubs established by AMUS. The concept behind the Block Clubs was simply to bring neighbors together to socialize, organize community events and plan solutions to neighborhood problems. However, this simple concept resulted in something powerful: neighbors who knew and cared about each other, and who were eager to work together to better their community.

AMUS volunteer securing a property.

Image: AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project

With these initiatives in place in Midtown, crime in the neighborhood decreased by 50% between 2009 and 2013–well above the average for the rest of the city. With such clear proof that their approach worked, AMUS turned their attention to other neighborhoods struggling with high crime rates.

Small Changes With Major Impact

During the October 1st cleanup, AMUS volunteers, joined by 10 members of the local Block Club, secured five vacant properties and cleaned up seven lots in the Radnor Street and Warren Avenue section of the MEC neighborhood. By the end of the day, their dumpster was filled almost to the brim with debris left behind in vacant houses and lots, bottles and other trash found along the street, plus a heaping helping of overgrown brush.

“That’s a lot for one day!” Budget Dumpster’s Katina Hazimihalis remarked to Singleton during a phone call. “We’re very experienced with board-ups and cleanups,” Singleton laughed. AMUS holds cleanups and board-ups twice a week, and have cleaned up and/or secured 300 properties since last October alone.

AMUS volunteer posing with collected tires.

Image: AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project

Ultimately, AMUS’ goal is to be active in every Detroit neighborhood. In the more immediate future, Singleton wants to expand the reach of their Detroit Youth Service Corps, which provides young men with academic and career preparation.

AMUS has achieved incredible reductions in crime for many Detroit neighborhoods through civic engagement and straightforward tasks. Every week, AMUS proves that something as simple as a full dumpster and a clean street, combined with motivated residents, can pave the way for a safer neighborhood.

AMUS volunteers posing during street cleanup.

Image: AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project

This is part of a series of articles spotlighting organizations that are making a difference in the communities we service. If you know of another great organization, let us know in the comments! Inspired by AMUS’ work? Learn how to get involved.