Street Outreach Workers Build Trust
In too many New Haven neighborhoods, just about everyone has known someone who was killed by a gun. The New Haven Street Outreach Worker Program is working to change this tragic reality one neighborhood at a time.
"We have one common goal: to save the youth," says Doug Bethea, a veteran street outreach worker.
Bethea and the eight-member team work in the city's toughest neighborhoods, reaching out primarily to youth ages 15 -21. They get to know the kids, mentoring the ones who are willing to accept help. They take groups on field trips and help connect them to summer jobs and scholarships. And when disputes between individuals or gangs flare up, the outreach workers intervene and try to mediate a peaceful resolution.
"We attack violence out of respect," says David Morales, an outreach worker in Fair Haven. "Once we identify the individuals involved, we take them to an isolated area, and help them work it out away from everyone else."
The program made headlines after sitting down two rival gangs and brokering a truce agreement over pizza and soda. To mediate agreements like this requires many hours dedicated to building personal relationships based on mutual trust.
"We have to establish credibility," says Bethea. "You can't do this work if you don't have passion."
The city launched the Street Outreach Worker Program in 2007 after homicides had climbed to the highest rate in a decade. A collaboration of the city's community services administration, the police department, and New Haven Family Alliance, the program has been supported, in part, with multi-year investments totaling over $500,000 from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
The initiative is part of a larger strategy targeting violence, including a revival of community-based policing, the use of data-driven "hotspot" policing, and Project Longevity, a partnership with the U.S. Dept. of Justice that targets gang members following a shooting.
The results have been promising. From 2007- 2011, the city saw a 31% decrease in the number of youth victims of non-fatal shootings, and the street outreach workers interventions have had a real impact by altering the outcomes of potentially deadly conflicts.
In 2012, 34 mediation agreements involving 116 individuals were reached and the outreach workers intervened to interrupt more than 160 potentially violent disputes that involved 645 youth.
The New Haven Street Outreach Worker Program was modeled on similar programs in nearby cities: The Institute for the Study and Practice of Non-Violence in Providence RI and Boston Ceasefire. These and other similar programs across the country represent a strategic shift in how cities are trying to stop youth violence. Rather than being thought of as simply a criminal justice problem, the violence is understood as a public health problem rooted in an interplay of environmental factors such as limited opportunities for healthy adolescent development.
"... they keep their conversations with the kids confidential. This trust is essential for them to be the ones that kids turn to with a problem before it turns violent."
The street outreach workers are on the front lines of changing this environment by expanding opportunities for youth in their neighborhoods. They act as mentors, helping kids stay focused on school and positive activities. They advocate for favorable considerations for those on probation or parole. They help young men and women find jobs, and encourage them to take life skills and job readiness training offered by New Haven Family Alliance and other partners. And they help kids work through conflicts before they escalate.
The street outreach workers recruit kids through the word of mouth. The also receive referrals from the New Haven police department. To maintain credibility with the kids, however, the street outreach workers can never be seen as an arm of law enforcement. While they do not cover up for any crime, they keep their conversations with the kids confidential. This trust is essential for them to be the ones that kids turn to with a problem before it turns violent.
The street outreach workers also came from the streets, which helps give them credibility. Several of them are ex-felony offenders who have turned their lives around.
"Each one of them is not only a role model, but is a testament that you can get out of the streets, and you can have a life," says Shirley Ellis-West, the program manager.
In Fair Haven, Morales helped 15 of his mentees find full and part-time jobs. Six who participated in the Youth at Work program were placed at the Jewish Home for the Elderly, a project that has helped both the kids and the elderly patients grow and learn from each other.
"These kids wouldn't have gotten past the front door in order to fill out an application," Morales said.