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Reaching Out on the Roiling Streets

Originally published in The Boston Globe

December 3, 2010
Maria Cramer

On a recent night, Donovan Walker stood with three men in the courtyard of a Roxbury housing project.

Walker, a street worker with the Boston Foundation, watched quietly as two of the neighborhood men urged their younger friend, a gaunt 21-year-old considered dangerous by police, to let Walker connect him with a city program that could help him get a high school diploma or a job.

"Go see these people at City Hall," one of the men said, encouragingly. But the young man said nothing, shook his head, and walked away.

It has been hard to reach the most feared people on the street.

For the last year, Walker and 19 other street workers have focused on a 1 1/2-square-mile section of the city plagued by gang violence. Their mission is to help drive down crime by building relationships with gang members.

Despite setbacks, a preliminary evaluation by Harvard researchers says the street worker program shows positive signs. Even as homicides increased sharply in Boston since last year, shootings connected to gangs targeted by the street workers have decreased from July 2009 to June 30, and so did gang violence in the areas street workers cover, said David Hureau, a research associate at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

"One of the really important successes of the program today is it is really focused on the hard-core gang members," said Christopher Winship. a professor at the Kennedy School. "The vast majority of youth-oriented city programs don’t deal with that population. They’re tough, and success is hard to come by."

The street workers, part of a Boston Foundation program called StreetSafe, are paid to work with so-called impact players, those men believed to be the cause of most of the city’s shootings.

Announced with great fanfare in December 2008, StreetSafe was envisioned as a way to fight crime in five of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, primarily along the Blue Hill Avenue corridor, by targeting about 2,000 criminals between 16 and 24 years old, who police believe cause more than three quarters of the city’s violence. Unlike the city’s street workers, the Foundation’s street workers could work past midnight and can be hired despite having criminal records.

Success is hard to measure. Street workers have made contact with about 250 impact players from 20 gangs. About 70 youths have been connected with jobs, mental health services, GED programs, and housing, the Boston Foundation says.

Some street workers have been fired. Two street workers were let go following arrests, one for passing counterfeit bills and the other for assaulting a police officer.

More recently, two street workers were fired after being seen hanging out in an area known for drug dealing.

Robert Lewis, program director for the Boston Foundation and the former head of the city’s street worker program, said the most recent firings were painful, but unavoidable.

"Unfortunately I can’t have folks in our program who folks in the community feel can’t be trusted," he said. "I lose the trust of young folks on the street or the community, and I lose."

The street workers call the youths clients. But their relationships are much more complex. The street workers have sat in the courtroom when the young people they work with were arraigned on murder charges. They have gone to the hospital when the young people have been shot or stabbed. And, during the worst times, the street workers have attended clients’ funerals.

When Walker first went to Warren Gardens, clad in his black StreetSafe T-shirt, many youths walked away when he approached. Some cursed at him. Others threatened to shoot him, Walker said.

"I was at my wit’s end," he said.

But he kept going back, and relationships slowly improved.

During one shift, Walker brought pizza, chicken and plain, to the housing complex. Tall and thin, Walker stood nearby as men scarfed down slices and played cards.

"You feed them, they listen," he said.

Walker’s strategy is to be there, not to push himself on the men, but to act as a steady presence they might eventually perceive as trustworthy.

"He’s all right," one teenager said of Walker. "I didn’t like him at first."

"I say what’s up," said another, describing his relationship with him. "Then we go our separate ways. That’s it. . . . I’ll put him down as a reference."

Walker shrugs off the bravado. He said he has formed bonds with several young men who are now getting their diplomas or working.

"We have relationships with everybody we deal with," he said. "Can you quantify the people you say hello to and [who] can call you in that moment to tell you what kind of pain they’re in? That’s what we take in every day."

As for the 21-year-old who first refused Walker’s help, he is coming around, Walker said.

"Conversation has changed from 'I don’t want to hear what you got' to 'let me peep what you got,' " he said.

A few weeks ago, Walker took the young man and three other clients to eat downtown and catch a screening of "The Town."

"Then they had to meet up with a bunch of girls at 7 o’clock, so they dumped me," Walker said and laughed.

Boston Police Deputy Superintendent William Gross, who helps do background checks on prospective street workers, said officers relied heavily on them in September, when four people were shot dead on a Mattapan street, to comfort victims’ loved ones and keep the streets calm.

In another incident last summer, street worker Marcus Merritt, was patrolling his sector in the South End when he heard gunshots. He ran to Shawmut Avenue and saw one of his clients, an 18-year-old, bleeding from the chest and gasping for air.

Worried that an ambulance would not get to the scene in time to save him, Merritt, 33, put the teenager in his truck and rushed to Boston Medical Center, running red lights and speeding.

"I broke all of the traffic rules," Merritt said.

"Don’t let me die," the teenager pleaded. "My mother is going to kill me."

The young man survived.

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