The majority of gun violence occurring in cities across America has a small geographic footprint, with the majority of shootings happening in underserved neighborhoods experiencing high unemployment rates, poverty, racial segregation, and lack of access to quality education.1Aliza Aufrichtig et al., “Want to Fix Gun Violence in America? Go Local,” The Guardian, January 9, 2017, http://bit.ly/2P0i3an. Residents in these communities who are routinely exposed to violence and carry the trauma of that exposure may be at an increased risk of adopting violent behaviors themselves.2Cure Violence Global, “Violence as a Health Issue,” accessed June 12, 2019, http://cureviolence.org/understand-violence/violence-as-a-health-issue/ The impact of this exposure can be reduced through individual or community support and interventions.
Street outreach programs provide immediate crisis-response services for those directly exposed to and/or involved in gun violence, as well as long-term stabilization and support. This public health approach to violence prevention works to prevent shootings and to interrupt the spread of violence. Trained violence interrupters (VIs) and outreach workers help to prevent shootings by identifying and mediating conflicts immediately in the community. These case managers and teams are able to work with those most at risk, earn their trust, and influence their behavior because of their credibility within the community and, often, their own history with gun violence. They continue to work with people at high risk of involvement in gun violence by providing ongoing case management and connecting them to social supports. Finally, the teams work with members of the community to change the norms around violence and create a more positive environment.3Cure Violence Global, “Violence as a Health Issue.”
Street outreach programs have been rigorously evaluated in several cities. Street outreach evaluations reveal mixed impacts on gun/violence, with some sites experiencing significant improvements. For example, a 2017 quasi-experimental evaluation of Philadelphia’s Cure Violence program found that historic hotspots within larger program areas saw a 34 percent reduction in the rate of shootings, while matched comparison areas did not.4Roman C, Klein H, Wolff K, Bellamy MD, Reeves K. Philadelphia CeaseFire: Findings from the Impact Evaluation. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University. 2017. Similarly, a 2017 evaluation of Cure Violence in two New York City neighborhoods found that South Bronx site was associated with significant declines in gun injuries (37%) and shooting victimizations (63%), compared to a matched neighborhood. In East New York, gun injuries declined (50%) as well.5Sheyla A. Delgado et al., “The Effects of Cure Violence in the South Bronx and East New York, Brooklyn,” in Denormalizing Violence: A Series of Reports from the John Jay College Evaluation of Cure Violence Programs in New York City (New York: Research and Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, 2017). Young men living in neighborhoods served by New York City’s Cure Violence sites reported that they were less likely to use violence to resolve conflicts after the program had been active in their neighborhood.6Delgado, “The Effects of Cure Violence.”
Street outreach programs should have engagement and support from city and state officials. While most effective street outreach programs are housed in community-based organizations, many receive financial and logistical support from local and state government. This includes dedicated funding, training for staff, support with evaluations, convening stakeholders to support the program, and ensuring the organization is included in relevant public safety discussions, such as shooting reviews. Further, local and state officials can help promote the important work of outreach teams within the community.
Street Outreach programs must include a sustainable source of public funding. Any lapse in funding could result in smaller numbers of staff members, or worse, program closures, leading to damaged credibility of prevention and intervention efforts.
In order for the program to have a higher chance of success, a staff of outreach workers must include community leadership and an authentic voice from the communities served. It is imperative that members of the team understand street dynamics. In current programs, participants have emphasized credibility, including trustworthiness, authenticity, and the ability to relate to community members, as the most important characteristics for street team members. This staff should include a diverse team of community members, including formerly incarcerated individuals, clergy members, and other local community leaders.7Jennifer M. Whitehill et al., “Interrupting Violence: How the CeaseFire Program Prevents Imminent Gun Violence through Conflict Mediation,” Journal of Urban Health 91, no.1 (February 2014); 84-95. Additional staff should include dedicated researchers and/or analysts to collect and regularly provide data to help inform where the Violence Interrupters focus or expand their efforts. Researchers and analysts should also help evaluate programs and share best practices of other violence intervention practices. This will include quantitative and qualitative data and should be reported annually.
Whether your Street Outreach program exists within a city agency or in a local non-profit organization, the program will need continual access to gun violence data to conduct a spacial analysis to identify program sites. This data will also be used to identify those individuals who are at the highest risk of shooting or being shot within the program sites.
Strategy in Practice
There are several successful street outreach programs in cities throughout the country, and they have all implemented variations on the following three-step process:
- Identify areas highest at risk: As mentioned, gun violence is highly concentrated in certain neighborhoods. Effective programs focus their efforts on these locations. In addition to interrupting violent conflicts in these neighborhoods, outreach workers proactively engage the community by teaching and discussing costs associated with violence and helping those most at risk to obtain needed social services, such as job training, help leaving gangs, or drug treatment.
- Interrupt potential violent conflicts: Trained VIs identify and mediate conflicts in the community in order to prevent gun violence from occurring. When conflicts do arise, VIs follow up to ensure reengagement does not happen between conflicting parties.8Cure Violence Global, “The Cure Violence Health Model,” , accessed June 14, 2019, http://cureviolence.org/the-model/essential-elements/ This includes trained workers having immediate access to the community and hospitals to calm emotions and prevent retaliations. Ongoing mediation is involved while workers identify current disputes, recent arrests, and recent prison releases. Follow-up can last as long as needed to ensure violence does not erupt.
- Engage the community in change: Encourage community to send a message that gun violence will not be tolerated. This can involve organizing community rallies in response to every shooting, creating or engaging community groups like block associations or tenant councils, and distributing materials to promote the message that violence is unacceptable.9Cure Violence Global, “The Cure Violence Health Model”
Funding: Cuts in funding due to expired grants or local or state budget cuts cause complications and create barriers to long-term, meaningful strategic planning. Successful programs will need several years of funding commitment in order to establish themselves and collect data. Inadequate funding can prevent street outreach programs from scaling their work to serve all neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence. Limited funding will prevent services to people at high risk of victimization and will prevent partnerships expansions with hospitals and schools.
Trust: While street outreach programs benefit from buy-in from city leaders, it is important that each site is community-based. In areas with a high concentration of violence, police relations are often strained, creating distrust. Anything resembling a “top-down approach” or a law enforcement–driven strategy with decision-making happening outside of the community will undermine the trust in the VIs and outreach workers, particularly from the people at risk who fear incarceration or a criminal justice response. People are more likely to have positive interactions with law enforcement when fair and equitable treatment is perceived.10Tom Tyler and Yuen Huo, Trust in the Law: Encouraging Public Cooperation with the Police and Courts (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002).
Agencies, Organizations, and Other Necessary Partners
Social workers at local Level 1 trauma centers should refer individuals who have been shot/violently injured to trained street outreach workers and VIs for mediation and relationship building. Probation and parole officers should refer individuals who are currently incarcerated, those recently released for serious/violent offenses, or influencers to VIs. Clergy members or other local community leaders may also be valuable partners in securing broader-scale buy-in to this approach to violence prevention.
Newsroom & Resources
Cure Violence was founded in 2000 by Gary Slutkin, M.D. former head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Intervention Development Unit. When Cure Violence was launched it reduced shootings by 67% in its first year. It has programs in Chicago, Baltimore, New York, New Orleans and in 2008 started international outreach. Some sites have been evaluated and demonstrate strong results. It ranked #9 NGO in the world by NGO Advisor.
Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI)
Massachusetts is one of the few states to invest directly in Street team resources. Studies on Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI) have shown that these efforts are saving lives and taxpayer dollars. SSYI works directly with those most at risk of shooting or being shot. Programs must provide a broad spectrum of social services to young men 14-24 who are proven at risk of being involved in gun violence, which includes members or leaders of street groups and repeat juvenile offenders. For each dollar invested in the program, Massachusetts’ taxpayers saved an estimated $7.35.
On the Frontlines – Elevating the Voices of Violence Intervention Workers (Giffords Report, 2021)