‘Re­lent­less out­reach’ in Bal­ti­more’s rough­est ar­eas


A new team decked out in pur­ple shirts hit the streets of East and West Bal­ti­more this week, in pur­suit of some of the most trou­bled and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous young men in the city.

The out­reach work­ers are knock­ing on doors, but not to in­ves­ti­gate or ar­rest the men. The team aims to do some­thing more rad­i­cal: hound them in the hopes of cre­at­ing re­la­tion­ships that will dis­rupt the city’s cy­cle of vi­o­lence.

“If the young per­son slams the door in my face, I will be back the next day and the next day, and fi­nally he will be so an­noyed that he will at least lis­ten to what I have to say,” said Kur­tis Palermo, one of a dozen work­ers with Roca, an anti-vi­o­lence non­profit that has come to the city af­ter 30 years of op­er­a­tion in Mas­sachusetts.

“We’re go­ing to do ev­ery­thing we can be­cause we un­der­stand what the al­ter­na­tives are for these young men. A lot of these young men are used to peo­ple knock­ing on their door in a neg­a­tive light.”

Mayor Cather­ine E. Pugh, lo­cal ad­vo­cates and busi­ness lead­ers re­cruited Roca with a $17 mil­lion pack­age to work on Bal­ti­more’s streets for the next four years. De­spite threats, slammed doors or com­plete op­po­si­tion, Roca’s founder, Molly Bald­win, said that her work­ers will con­tinue over the next year to in­vite 100 young men to join the pro­gram’s ed­u­ca­tional, life skills and tran­si­tional em­ploy­ment ser­vices. The men, ages 16 to 24, have se­ri­ous charges on their records and are se­lected by pro­ba­tion and pa­trol agents, ju­ve­nile jus­tice of­fi­cials and po­lice as be­ing un­will­ing to give up street crime or gang in­volve­ment.

It is not a quick process, but Roca has a record of con­nect­ing high-risk young men to jobs and keep­ing them out of jail, Bald­win said. Data from their Mas­sachusetts op­er­a­tions show the men typ­i­cally take 15 to 18 months be­fore they show up con­sis­tently and be­gin the real work of trans­form­ing their lives, she said.

Last year, Roca worked with 854 high-risk young men in Mas­sachusetts. Of those, 283 com­pleted the first two years of in­ten­sive out­reach and pro­gram­ming, with 84 per­cent avoid­ing new ar­rests and 76 per­cent hold­ing jobs for at least three months.

“The team and the part­ners and the fun­ders and the sup­port­ers have to strap in for it,” said Bald­win, a Bal­ti­more na­tive. “These young peo­ple are in a lot of distress. They’re in harm’s way. They’re caus­ing harm. I think of them as vul­ner­a­ble and volatile, and when things go wrong, they’re very vis­i­ble. And they can change.”

Roca means “rock” in Span­ish, sym­bol­iz­ing a new foun­da­tion for the young men it serves: those who are not in school and not will­ing to work with other groups. It will op­er­ate from a cen­tral lo­ca­tion in the city to pro­vide neu­tral ground for its par­tic­i­pants to come from East and West Bal­ti­more. For now, the work­ers are out in the neigh­bor­hoods get­ting to know peo­ple.

Some of Roca’s fund­ing will pay for “tran­si­tional em­ploy­ment,” or var­i­ous odd jobs, such as clean­ing and spruc­ing up pub­lic spa­ces. There, Roca can coach and sup­port par­tic­i­pants un­til they’re re­li­able enough for a tra­di­tional job.

About $1 mil­lion is in­cluded in the city’s spend­ing plan for the new fis­cal year.

Pugh high­lighted Roca in her state-of-the-city ad­dress in March as part of a strat­egy to fight crime. Its sup­port­ers see the non­profit as an al­ter­na­tive to cus­tom­ary crim­i­nal jus­tice in­ter­ven­tions at a time when the city con­tin­ues to bat­tle high lev­els of crime. Though vi­o­lent crime is down al­most 15 per­cent through late June, the city has en­dured un­prece­dented lev­els in re­cent years.

Drew Vet­ter, who runs the Mayor’s Of­fice of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice, said Roca’s ar­rival speaks to the prom­ise of a safer city.

“Out­reach to the most at-risk young peo­ple in the com­mu­nity is a key el­e­ment in the city’s vi­o­lence-re­duc­tion ef­forts,” Vet­ter said. “We’re con­fi­dent their ap­proach is go­ing to make a dif­fer­ence in the city. The premise of their pro­gram is peo­ple can change.”

Vet­ter said the non­profit is unique for the lengths it will go to es­tab­lish pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ships with young peo­ple.

Roca is work­ing with city of­fi­cials and oth­ers to set goals for the next four years and stan­dards for track­ing per­for­mance to en­sure the pro­gram can adapt to a new lo­ca­tion and find suc­cess.

Bald­win said data is key, al­low­ing her team to an­a­lyze the be­hav­ior of the young men and the per­for­mance of her staff and ad­just. Roca tracks how many times em­ploy­ees knock on some­one’s door or call him. It records how many con­sec­u­tive days the men show up for ser­vices, whether they re­ceive a raise or pro­mo­tion and when and for how long they re­lapse, in­clud­ing a re­turn to drugs or crime.

Young men who have worked with the pro­gram typ­i­cally say that what per­suaded them to par­tic­i­pate was the out­reach work­ers’ per­sis­tence, Bald­win said.

“Roca brings the band­width for the process,” Bald­win said. “Just be­cause to­day I say, ‘I want out; I want to do some­thing else,’ doesn’t mean I know how to do that. We’re go­ing to go with this change process with you. And by the way, we can ac­tu­ally out-an­noy you. We call it re­lent­less out­reach. It’s a kind of le­gal stalk­ing.”

The non­profit ac­knowl­edges that its ef­forts don’t al­ways work. For in­stance, two men were con­victed last year in the death of a ri­val gang mem­ber who was work­ing on a Roca crew shov­el­ing snow; one of the men at­tacked the vic­tim, de­spite promis­ing to work peace­fully with him. The or­ga­ni­za­tion re­sponded by tight­en­ing its se­cu­rity.

Roca work­ers have never faced ma­jor in­ci­dents in­volv­ing their health or safety, ac­cord­ing to the non­profit. Safety pre­cau­tions are in place, in­clud­ing hav­ing them per­form out­reach work in pairs and groups of three.

Bald­win said she has been in­ter­ested in bring­ing Roca to Bal­ti­more for about five years, and the non­profit’s work caught the at­ten­tion of the Harry and Jeanette Wein­berg and Abell foun­da­tions.

Robert Em­bry, Abell’s pres­i­dent, said the young men Roca will work with are in real need of in­ter­ven­tion. Chang­ing be­hav­ior, and ul­ti­mately re­duc­ing the crime rate, will take time, he said.

“It isn’t go­ing to be changed by say­ing a prayer,” Em­bry said. “It is go­ing to take hard work. This isn’t the sil­ver bul­let. This is part of a larger ef­fort.”

Roca’s Bal­ti­more team has been care­fully se­lected, made up al­most en­tirely of lo­cal men and women with var­ied life ex­pe­ri­ence.

James “J.T.” Timp­son is a Bal­ti­more na­tive who has done com­mu­nity out­reach for years, from city agencies to the anti-vi­o­lence pro­gram Safe Streets. He is Roca’s direc­tor of youth work and cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion.

Timp­son says one of the most im­por­tant things Roca will of­fer is op­por­tu­nity. If five young men are stand­ing on a cor­ner, only two might be sell­ing drugs; the oth­ers are wait­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties, he said.

“Dis­trust in this city is huge,” Timp­son said. “There have been so many empty prom­ises. The re­al­ity is, a lot of pro­grams have been sell­ing hope, and at some point, hope is not enough any­more. We have to be able to come up with a plan, and they have to be able to see that plan in ac­tion.”

“If the young per­son slams the door ... I will be back the next day and the next day, and fi­nally he will be so an­noyed that he will at least lis­ten.” Kur­tis Palermo, a worker with Roca, an anti-vi­o­lence non­profit

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