Back to the Streets

What’s up, fellas?” Miss Shirley asks, sauntering around the classroom in a grey skirt suit, red heels, and red hoops. “Everybody go to school today?”

The eight boys and three girls, slouched in their hoodies and windbreakers, look between 14 and 18 years old. They say nothing.

Miss Shirley teaches this life skills class four days a week, but she never knows who will show up. Many kids are court-ordered to attend, some are brought in by fed-up parents or grandparents, and still others are recruited by the New Haven Family Alliance, a non-profit organization that organizes the class. Today’s session began late, at 4:30 instead of 4:00, and people continue to trickle in. Before long, there are 15 boys and six girls.

Miss Shirley has scrawled “Transferrable Skills” [sic] on a big sheet of paper. She asks the class for a definition.

George, who has just sauntered in, raises his hand. He’s wearing stonewashed jeans, spotless yellow and blue sneakers, and a North Face jacket. “It’s when you take something from life, from school, and apply it to something like a job,” he tells Miss Shirley. “Say you count money real good selling drugs, then you can count money real good somewhere else.”

Miss Shirley had planned an exercise in which the kids would brainstorm what skills a housewife could market if her husband got injured, but she changes her tack. “Everybody know what the definition of a drug dealer is, right?” she asks. They laugh. She asks them to shout out a drug dealer’s transferable skills.

“They can save money.”

“They’re a chemist.”

“They can cook, too!”

“They can measure.”

They can bag up, chop, break down, the kids say. They can talk, they can sell, they can run. Miss Shirley scribbles skills on the paper, and the group decides that a drug dealer could get a job as a car salesman, a carpenter, an investor, or a scientist.

“If I’m a drug dealer, can I be a cop?” Miss Shirley asks.

“Sure you can,” says a boy called BoBo, “look at ’em right now.” He’s referring to Billy White, a New Haven narcotics cop arrested last spring for on-duty theft and bribery. His scandal prompted an FBI probe into the narcotics department, which produced two more arrests.

A man by the door chimes in. “If you a cop you could be the one to change how people are being treated, you could turn around what’s going wrong,” he says. He’s older than the kids, around forty, and his long braids are covered with a knit cap. He has a diamond hoop in one ear and a diamond stud in the other. His name is Maurice Peters, but the kids know him as Blest.

Blest has reformed himself since he dealt cocaine in the ’80s. Today, he is part of New Haven’s Street Outreach Team, which was launched last July. At night, he dons a bright purple jacket with “NEW HAVEN STREET TEAM” stamped on the back, drives around the city in a minivan, and talks to kids. He works for the New Haven Family Alliance and is paid by private organizations and the state. He receives information from the police but gives none in return.

New Haven residents, who have witnessed the unfolding of a police corruption scandal during one of the worst spikes in violent shootings the city has seen since the notorious early ’90s, are looking beyond traditional policing to protect their homes and families. For many, the most troubling fact is how much of the violence is committed by teenagers, and they are hoping that former criminals like Blest and the seven other street outreach workers will help check escalating youth gun violence by showing kids how they got off the streets and why it’s worth the effort.

When a girl says that she gave back to the community when she was selling drugs by buying book bags for all the kids on her block, Blest breaks in. “If drugs gave back to the community, the community wouldn’t be in the state it’s in.” Blest speaks with the authority of experience. “Book bags are good, but if kids are on the streets not going to school, then those book bags are empty, there’s no knowledge in it.” Blest likes to speak in aphorisms.

“Some of us drug dealers have morals,” protests George, who is living in a group home and trying to straighten out. While he was selling crack, he sold to a woman he didn’t realize was his friend’s mom until he knocked on her door to deliver a baggie. His friend answered. “I felt that was wrong cuz it was my homeboy’s mother,” he says. He stopped selling to her.

By now, kids fill every chair in the room, and they’re talking over each other, trying to squeeze in stories of fathers who left them, cousins who betrayed them, and babies they don’t want to grow up like them.

A booming voice cuts through the buzz. A short woman in a skintight, pale blue sweatshirt with half-moon sweat stains stands on her tiptoes and waves her arms. “Everybody knows it’s wrong,” says Monique “Mo” Cooper, another street outreach worker. “It’s just our way of surviving. Somebody passed it on to us. It’s a selfish game out there in the street.”

Nobody wants to sell crack to someone’s mother, Mo says, but sometimes it’s just what you gotta do. But she doesn’t push anymore. She broke the cycle. And that, presumably, is what they’re all here for.

A boy named Milton says he, too, is trying to break the cycle, but his friends won’t let him. They don’t want him to stop selling or get off the streets, and he knows they’ll come after him if he does. Miss Shirley advises him to run, to do what it takes to get out of the game, but Milton laughs. No way he’d run.

Other kids agree, talking over each other again, until street outreach worker Anthony “Ant” Ward pulls up his sweater and shouts, “I wish I ran! I wish I ran!” All eyes in the room are fixed on a foot-long, inch-deep, jagged scar running through Ant’s belly fat. “I was stupid, I was stupid, I was so stupid,” Ant says into the silence.

Despite the city’s overall declining crime rates, New Haven kids are shooting each other more and more often. In the summer of 2006, the city was shocked by the deaths of Jajuana Cole and Justus Suggs, both 13-year-olds who stayed out of trouble but got in the way of angry kids with guns. Cole and Suggs were part of the 90 percent of New Haven youth who, according to downtown alderwoman Bitsie Clark, are far from troublemakers but still at risk.

Clark is chair of the aldermanic Youth Services Committee. In the midst of a recent citywide debate over whether to institute a youth curfew, she heard again and again from the police that, as she puts it, “there were a corps of kids in the city that were causing the problems, that were at the core of the issues.” So she and Community Services Administrator Kica Matos did some research. The pair concluded that only 3 percent of the city’s youth were involved in criminal activity, and 7 percent were at risk of heading in that direction.

When Clark and Matos examined New Haven’s youth programs—its after-school activities, summer camps, and mentoring partnerships—they realized that all of them were directed at the well-behaved 90 percent. The troublemakers, it seemed, were left to the police.

Matos and Clark began to research programs aimed at the at-risk youth population in other cities. They soon learned about Providence’s Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, which garnered national publicity for hiring ex-junkies as street workers. These social workers with unconventional pasts head to the hospital after a shooting, hook kids up with educational and occupational resources, and act as father figures to many who are already fathers themselves.

Many consider this strategy an ideal form of community policing, a concept which has been around for decades but was spotlighted by President Bill Clinton’s Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. Included in the 1994 Crime Bill, COPS promised to put a hundred thousand new cops on the street so that cities could continue to fund walking old-fashioned beats. The idea was that if the police established a constant neighborhood presence and got to know the people they were policing, the new officers would pay for themselves in the crimes they prevented. Though COPS finished twenty thousand officers short of its goal, it contributed to the 33 percent drop in the national violent crime rate during Clinton’s eight years in office.

“I am a strong proponent, an ardent proponent of community policing,” outgoing New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz asserts. “I think it’s a way of life for policing in New Haven. It is institutionalized here in our department from top to bottom, in our community, and officers would have it no other way.” New Haven embraced community policing in 1990, under Chief Nicholas Pastore. Since doing so, the city’s crime rate has dropped 56 per cent. COPS funding helped nurture this approach. Despite a series of Bush administration budget cuts that have severely reduced federal funding of local policing, Ortiz, who became chief in 2003 after working his way up through the department, has remained vocally committed to the practice of community policing.

An external panel called in to review the police department in the midst of the narcotics probe, however, has observed a recent decline in New Haven’s community policing practices. And in November, Ortiz announced his resignation. He will stay on until the city completes a national search for a new chief to rebuild theembattled department.

Rob Smuts, deputy chief administrative officer for Mayor John DeStefano, describes the commitment necessary to maintain post-COPS community policing. “We’re talking millions annually, it’s not trump change. Some of the challenges we have really relate to the number of officers,” he explains, adding that the city has committed taxpayer money to fund new officers who will be assigned to “beats and things that are really the background of community policing.”

Yet Ortiz’s resignation caps a 60 percent spike in firearm-related homicides from 2005 to 2006. “When you look at public safety as a challenge,” Smuts says, “you have both the numbers, and New Haven’s doing very well by the numbers, but you also look at how people feel in the community and whether people feel safe.” The recent spike in shootings, he explains, “undermines people’s sense of safety.” With a police department in transition, New Haven citizens are seeking alternative methods of keeping their neighborhoods safe.

While Ortiz says the street outreach worker program is “absolutely” a form of community policing, Matos, the community services administrator who developed the program and still oversees it for the city, is careful to distance the outreach workers from any derivative of the word “police.”

“I think it complements community policing,” she says slowly, “but I would classify it as a youth advocacy program.”

When Matos and Clark began to recreate Providence’s success in the Elm City, they turned to New Haven police officer Shafiq Abdussubur. Abdussubur has been a local father figure for years. In 2003, he founded a youth program called CTRibat in the Dixwell neighborhood, where he grew up. After years of walking a beat in the area, Abdussubur knew most of the kids. He knew who the troublemakers were, and he had a pretty good idea of what they were missing. CTRibat—which previously relied on police donations and is now funded by a combination of city and community dollars—gave kids arts and literature programs and camping trips. Abdussubur brought in musicians, writers, and artists. Most importantly, he spent time with kids instead of waiting to arrest them.

Adults know Abdussubur as well as kids do. Clark knows him through the youth services committee, which he attends regularly as a representative of CTRibat, and Matos knows him as a Dixwell community organizer. It seems everybody knows Abdussubur.

“I was kind of recruited as CEO of youth violence,” Abdussubur recalls of being asked by Ortiz to tailor the Providence street team program to New Haven. In the wake of the deaths of Cole and Suggs, Abdussubur had already organized an informal team to visit shooting victims at the hospital. This team included Tracey Suggs, Justus Suggs’ mother, who needed a positive outlet for her grief.

“I knew I couldn’t just sit back,” Suggs recalls. “I had to get in there and talk to kids or the victims and the families, if the kids could talk. There had to be some kind of turn-around to keep this from happening again. This was pretty much my own way of dealing with my own grief. What better person to do this would be me? Sometimes people want to hear from someone who’s actually been there, not from someone who hasn’t experienced it.”

City officials caught on to this idea. They realized that, despite Abdussubur’s community work, he was not the right person to implement the program. First and foremost, he was a cop. Not only did he need time to focus on his beat, but there was also no one the target population trusted less than the cops. The best people for the job, the aldermen decided, were the ones who had actually been there.

Tyrone Weston, coordinator of the street outreach worker program, served ten years in prison for narcotics and violence. Now 37, he has been out of jail for nine years and is raising a 19-year-old daughter. Topping his grandfather cardigan and turtleneck is a full row of gold teeth, a lingering reminder of his years on the street.

“When you look around and see the neighborhood,” says Weston, who grew up in New Haven, “you can’t complain about it because you had a lot to do with it.”  He feels a responsibility to fix a situation he helped create. Weston thinks he’s the best one to lead the street outreach team because, far from judging street life, he understands its draws, its highs and lows. “I’ve been in the streets since I was 13-years old, and I know why these kids love the streets,” he explains, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses. “I’m a grown man at 37, and still you have to tell yourself, ‘You can do this, you can’t do that.’”

Weston was working with the Christian Brotherhood Summit, a local civic group known for spreading a nonviolent message, when Barbara Tinney, head of the New Haven Family Alliance, heard about him. She hired him to launch the Alliance’s street outreach team in July. Since then, the program has built a staff of eight outreach workers, seven male and one female, all of whom have criminal backgrounds. Tinney admits there’s been some turnover in the staff due to the challenges of the job. “There was a lack of suitability, let’s leave it at that,” she says carefully.

The trickiest part of coordinating the program is finding the right candidates to run it. “This has to be more than a job,” Weston explains. Outreach workers are hired to be there for kids, anytime, anywhere. If they get a two a.m. phone call from a kid about to go shoot someone, it’s their job to get out of bed and talk the kid down. But in order to receive such a phone call, they need to possess a trust-winning balance of street cred and mentoring skills.

On a typical day, Weston says, he puts together a list of high-profile kids from social workers, court, and police tips and sends his outreach workers to find them. Purple-jacketed and unarmed, the workers disperse across the city. First, Weston says, “you have to identify, you have to engage.” Once the outreach workers have connected with the kids and gained some trust, they present options. One of the reasons the New Haven Family Alliance won the contract for the program was its pre-existing resource network. If an outreach worker discovers that one of their kids is failing school or expecting a child, he or she can hook the kid up with the Family Alliance’s adult tutoring or parenting programs. The workers also refer their charges to outside addiction and counseling resources. Many of the kids at Miss Shirley’s life skills class were brought in by outreach workers.

Ideally, the workers would also be involved in emergency or high-conflict situations. Rather than letting gang tension escalate to a shooting, supporters of the street outreach worker program hope that kids would call Mo, Blest, Ant, Cousin Twiz, Dougie, Remedy, Pete, or Picasso and talk it out. Ideally, the workers’ preventative role would replace the police’s disciplinary one. This would  cause a reverse domino effect: as fewer kids would get shot, fewer kids would go to jail, fewer kids would get out and deal because they couldn’t get another job, and fewer kids would turn to the streets for protection only to learn that, as Weston is fond of saying, “the streets don’t love you back.” Ideally, the street outreach worker program would break the cycle.

Heading out on patrol after the life skills class, street outreach worker Pete Lopez has promised a ride to George, the teenager who inadvertently sold crack to his friend’s mother. Pete hops in the battered white van while George hangs outside, dragging on a cigarette. When Blest, who is accompanying Pete on patrol, has settled into the passenger seat, Pete steps on the gas. George bangs on the door and Pete brakes so that George can toss out his cigarette and climb in. “That’s why you the new guy,” George laughs.

It’s Pete’s second week on the job. A winged tattoo on his neck peeks out of his purple jacket, which he wears proudly. A reddish beard frames his face and a gray knit kulfi covers his skull. So far, Pete’s only ridden with Dougie, his mentor, around Dixwell, but tonight he and Blest, who is in his third week, are setting out on their own. After they drop George in the Hill, they slow down and begin to look around. Blest sees a group of kids with trick bikes hanging on the sidewalk, and he tells Pete to stop. The two get out and amble over to the kids, who back away. Five minutes later, Pete and Blest are back in the car. “They know me more outside this jacket,” says Blest.

He’s familiar with many of New Haven’s young people through a program called Uniting Our Youth, which he’s operated for a few years now, but Blest is still adjusting to life in the purple jacket. These kids don’t recognize his new uniform yet. He and Pete talk constantly about Dougie, who’s a more established presence in the neighborhoods. They drive over to Dixwell to meet up with him but he has the night off, so Pete pulls into one of Dougie’s usual haunts, a strip mall. He checks in with the owners of a convenience store to make sure they’re not being harassed by the kids, but they stare at him silently from behind the counter. He walks over to the public library, which he says Dougie drops by frequently, but no one recognizes him.

Outside, Blest is chatting with some kids on trick bikes, one of whom is Dougie’s son. “You play ball, man, what you into?” Blest asks one of them. He gets a mumbled response. A police car flashes past, blaring its siren, and the kids lose interest. They pedal languidly away.

Blest moves on to two girls leaning on the wall outside China Star. He introduces himself to Wynisha, who’s twenty and in school to be a parole officer, and Sandy, who’s 17 and pregnant. “You ready to raise a child?” Blest asks Sandy. She stuffs her hands into her parka pockets and looks down, a faint smile stuck on her face. A young boy ambles over and puts his head on her shoulder.

“Is this your girl?” Blest asks the boy, who laughs and walks away. Sandy’s boyfriend is out dealing, Blest eventually pulls out of her. “Maybe you guys’ll get married,” he says, “but he needs to be productive, pay child support. If you plan on marrying this man you guys gotta be ready for it, cuz it’s a big step.”

Sandy smiles, silently.

Before he and Pete climb into the van, Blest tells Sandy, “That’s what it really is, you don’t give yourself a chance.” In the car, he says that he never knew his own father and had his first child at 17. Pete, who also never knew his father, has a three-month-old son. He showed pictures to Sandy and Wynisha on his cell phone.

“I get touched, like, ever since I’ve changed my life around,” Pete says as he drives over to the Ville—Newhallville—which he and Blest agree is the roughest part of town. They don’t stop; it’s not safe for a reporter. Pete grew up in the Bronx but has lived in New Haven for 19 years, he says. He dealt and used heroin and crack until five years ago, when he hit bottom. He still attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings sometimes, and he relies heavily on his faith; he’s been a Muslim for three years.

Pete and Blest recall how when they were teenagers, street fighting was fist to fist. Now, with the prevalence of guns, things have changed. “It’s a survival tactic,” Pete says. “I’m gonna blow your brains out before you blow mine. I may sit in jail, but nobody wants to go into the ground.”

As street outreach workers, the two want to teach kids different ways to survive. The conversation cycles back to Dougie, who recently prevented a shooting. One of Dougie’s kids got jumped the other night, says Blest, but his friends went to Dougie’s house in Dixwell before anyone called the police. Dougie talked to the perpetrator and the victim’s friends, and he diffused the situation so that the police never knew about it. That, Blest and Pete say, is the kind of street outreach worker they want to be.

“I want to have my kids engulfed in me,” Blest says. “I’m engulfed in my kids, but I want my kids to be engulfed in me like Dougie’s are in him.”

Time will tell if a purple jacket, criminal background, and crusader’s energy will win Blest kids’ trust. Even if they do, the future of New Haven’s street outreach worker program will remain tenuous. Funding is secured through July, but after that, Tinney and Weston will have to convince funders that the outreach workers are making a difference.

Evaluating a violence prevention program, whether it’s the street outreach  team or President Clinton’s COPS, is tricky. So many factors affect gun violence that a winter drop in shootings could be attributed to anti-violence efforts or to particularly cold weather. Tinney is working with Yale’s Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars to develop a method of measuring the program’s outcomes. “My main concern,” she says, “is that people will expect this is some sort of magic bullet.” She worries funders will give up on the program “if gun violence doesn’t end in a year.”

New Haven’s relationship with its youth and its youth’s relationship with guns are too deeply rooted to be fixed in a year. Weston, Pete, and Blest are all around forty, and despite having turned their lives around, they all still feel the pull of the streets. They know that there is no magic bullet to break the cycle of youth violence, but they also know that the police aren’t cutting it. The police never could have negotiated the unprecedented truces now lending hope to New Haven’s toughest neighborhoods. Last fall, outreach workers intervened between two groups from Dixwell and the Ville, mediating a series of talks between key players that culminated in a signed paper truce. Those same players now drop by the Family Alliance four times a week to receive job training and practice conflict resolution, and they helped negotiate three additional truces incorporating parts of the Hill and the Tre, the area around Dwight and Kensington streets.

These agreements, which Weston announced to Bitsie Clark’s Youth Services Committee in late November, are tenuous and have yet to manifest themselves in a significant drop in shootings. But in New Haven’s neighborhoods, these pieces of paper shielding the city’s toughest ten percent from each other’s guns are a massive gesture—one that would never have occurred without the facilitation of people who, looking back, wish they’d spoken instead of shot. These truces confirm that the solution to New Haven’s gun epidemic is not only a reformed police department but a group of reformed

ex-cons.

Nicole Allan is a junior in Calhoun College.

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