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Chicago funeral home director: 'These kids don't expect to live a full life'

Nathan Weber / for msnbc.com

Spencer Leak, director of Leak & Sons Funeral Home on Chicago's South Side, stands outside St. Andrews Temple during the wake of Kenneth Jones, who was killed while allegedly trying to flee an attempted robbery on Saturday, June 9, in the Park Manor neighborhood.

CHICAGO – Business is disturbingly steady for Spencer Leak, Sr.

It’s not that he is unaccustomed to being busy. After all, he is a successful funeral home director with two locations and his family has been in the funeral business for almost 80 years.

It’s just that many of the people arriving for their “homegoing,” as the services often are called, are so young. Leak said he’s been doing upwards of 125 funerals a year for homicide victims, many of them young adults, some just teenagers, who are victims of the recent surge in violence rocking this city.

“These kids don’t expect to live a full life,” said Leak, a former executive director of the Cook County Department of Corrections. “You get about a thousand other kids who come to these funerals. They see how it’s celebrated and they think this is how I’ll be celebrated when I get shot.”

Chicago’s police commissioner has pointed to gang-related conflicts as the driving force behind the recent surge in gun deaths. From the start of this year through June 18, at least 240 people have been killed, according to the Chicago Police Department. 

Just last weekend seven people were killed and 35 injured – marking the third weekend in a row with gunfire victims totaling well into the double digits. The weekend before, 46 people were hurt and eight killed across Chicago. The previous weekend, 29 were injured and three were killed in shootings.

More Chicago mayhem: 35 hurt, 7 killed in shootings

Homicides are up about 35 percent over last year at a time when violent crime nationwide is trending down. U.S. violent crime rates fell in 2011 for the fifth straight year, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation data

On June 11, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed a new law into effect targeting gangs. The Illinois Street Gang RICO Act strengthens penalties for organized crimes. Also, police announced plans to put officers on overtime during weekends to patrol the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

“It’s a sad indictment on us,” said Leak. “The spike in crime we’re seeing now is not something that’s surprising to me. I’m talking to at least two-to-three mothers a week whose kids were killed in the streets of Chicago, and I’m just one funeral director.”

Nathan Weber / for msnbc.com

Pall bearers take the casket of homicide victim Kenneth Jones, 27, to a hearse after the funeral service at St. Andrews Temple on Chicago's South Side on Monday, June 18, 2012.

Leak believes the solution to reducing the incidence of murder is multifaceted, adding that police are doing all they can. But he cites a lack of religious upbringing among many of today’s young black men as a major factor in the plague of violence.

“We’ve got to start trying to get these kids into some type of church setting,” he said. “We’ve got to preach to kids and try to show them what they’re doing is wrong.”

‘More than just a gang situation’
That message is what Pastor Corey Brooks attempts to convey every day. This spring, he protested Chicago’s violence by perching himself atop a vacant motel across the street from his church on the city’s South Side. For 94 days, he sat in a tent on the roof, hoping to call attention to the problem while raising money to buy and raze the motel, which he has done.

Now, Brooks is walking across the country – from New York to Los Angeles – for his Project H.O.O.D. (Helping Others Obtain Destiny) initiative. He wants to build a $15 million community and economic development center in the motel’s place.

Brooks has developed a reputation for undertaking the risks of officiating funerals for suspected gang members, services which have been, on occasion, marred by further violence. He doesn’t believe the violence is simply about gangs.

“It’s more than just a gang situation,” Brooks said from Coatesville, Pa., an hour’s drive west of Philadelphia, where he was walking with about 10 people. “It’s much bigger than that. You have one of the most economically hit areas, in unemployment. You have a bunch of different social ills, no spirituality whatsoever. And violence is the result.”

A young girl's family family mourns as gang-related violence escalates in the Windy City. WMAQ's Natalie Martinez reports.

Brooks said members of his New Beginnings church are taking to the streets in the neighborhood every Friday and Saturday night, from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. They walk around in groups and Brooks claims there have been no murders on those nights in the Woodlawn section of Chicago since they began the so-called “HOODvasions.”

“We need all hands on deck. We need all of the compassionate people we can get to get their hands on this issue,” said Brooks.

“It’s not just a black issue. This is an American issue.”

Leak agrees, calling on the president, himself a Chicagoan, to address the violence and get involved in the citywide conversation that seeks solutions.

And, he argues for tougher responses to nonviolent juvenile crimes like “stealing a lady’s purse or hubcaps,” Leak illustrated.

“If we don’t get these kids when they’re 7 or 8 years old, we’ll lose them,” he warned. “I used to get them at the jail at 17, and it was too late.”

These days the losses he gets could not be more final.

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