GREENVILLE – A coalition of more than 50 people attended the Citizens for Safer Streets meeting Wednesday night in Greenville as the group seeks to clean up their community and make it safer.
Hala Knapke is a Greenville native who moved back to the city last year. She was inspired to start the Citizens for Safer Streets group after witnessing kids using drugs while walking her dogs on Alice Bish Trail.
“I was frightened beyond belief,” she said. “This is not our town.”
Knapke, the owner of Youniques Boutique in downtown Greenville, hosted Citizens for Safer Streets’ first meeting in August. The group moved to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7262 in Greenville for its third monthly meeting on Wednesday and saw an increase in the number of people interested in helping improve their community.
“It’s going to take a lot of different wheels to run at the same time,” Knapke said following the 45-minute meeting. “But I think grassroots and citizens, it starts, but we just have to keep the fire burning and keep it going. And I think it’s just going to take that for change. Unity brings change, in my opinion.”
Knapke was angry at first that more wasn’t being done to stop the city’s drug problem, she said, but realized the police was working to combat the issue. However, it takes community involvement, she said, so she formed a group that could come up with fresh ideas and be proactive in combating drugs in Greenville.
“We would like to assist the city in code enforcement and people cleaning up their properties,” Knapke said. “I, personally, would like people to neighbor again and become a community like we should be, to know their neighbors and to help each other out.”
Kelly Harrison, who works in prevention at Recovery & Wellness, spoke about the feedback Citizens for Safer Streets received during its first two meetings and plans for moving forward. The No. 1 thing bringing people to the meeting was concern with drugs in Greenville, she said, and seeking ways to help combat the issue.
There’s a feeling within the group that drug dealers feel comfortable in Greenville, Harrison said.
“Don’t let drug dealers push us out of our own parks,” Knapke said.
Donna Gasper of Wayne Avenue in Greenville spoke about forming a neighborhood watch program after witnessing a drug dealer behind her property. The group put up signs, walked the alleys and formed phone trees to report suspicious activity to the police, she said.
It took eight months, but Gasper’s neighborhood watch program eventually helped lead to the arrest of a drug dealer, she said. She also went on to help other neighborhoods form their own neighborhood watch programs.
The phone tree that reported issues to the police was among the most effective tools the neighborhood watch programs have, Gasper said.
Knapke also is pushing for code enforcement to help clean up the streets and wants Greenville to hire a code enforcement officer. Drug dealers feel less comfortable in well-kept areas, she said, so cleaning up the city would help its image and could drive out illegal activity.
“I just want a safer place to raise children,” Knapke said. “I mean I have a lot of friends that have kids that don’t let their kids ride their bikes in the park. I mean that’s crazy. That’s really crazy that we have enabled drug addicts and drug dealers to own our streets and our sidewalks. To me it’s sad.”
Citizens for Safer Streets is working to form committees that will work together and work with city officials to address concerns. Mayor Steve Willman and City Council members Jeff Whitaker and Clarence Godwin were among those in attendance Wednesday night.
Knapke said she initially was hesitant to form the Citizens for Safer Streets group and talk about Greenville’s issues with drugs, fearing it would harm the city’s image. But she’s found communities all over share the same issues, she said, and what really matters is how they deal with the problems.
“It’s been great,” Knapke said of the reception she’s received, “and not only the people that have came here, I’ve had a lot of people calling me on the phone and telling me, ‘Hey, I’m there. What can I volunteer for?’ A lot of people are busy, they’ve got families, this might not be convenient, and it’s a church night.”
Citizens for Safer Streets’ next meeting will be at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at the VFW on Ohio Street in Greenville. Representatives from Family Health Services will be at the meeting to talk about needle exchange programs.