Anti-violence programs are working. But can they make a dent in Chicago’s gun violence?

St. Agatha Catholic Church
A sign outside of St. Agatha Catholic Church in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood expresses an urgent prayer. St. Agatha hosts the READI Chicago program, which is one of several anti-violence efforts showing signs of success despite the city's high shooting numbers. Patrick Smith / WBEZ
St. Agatha Catholic Church
A sign outside of St. Agatha Catholic Church in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood expresses an urgent prayer. St. Agatha hosts the READI Chicago program, which is one of several anti-violence efforts showing signs of success despite the city's high shooting numbers. Patrick Smith / WBEZ

Anti-violence programs are working. But can they make a dent in Chicago’s gun violence?

On weekday mornings, a collection of men who have engaged in gun violence, and men who have been victims of it, file into a small Catholic church on the Chicago’s West Side. They go through metal detectors, sign in and sit down in plastic chairs in a large room behind the church’s sanctuary. They are there for therapy, job training and a paycheck.

St. Agatha Catholic Church in North Lawndale is one of the homes for the READI Chicago program, which seeks to connect with the men most likely to shoot or be shot and get them out of harm’s way. READI is one of several similar programs that are central to Chicago’s plan to reduce violence.

Researchers have been studying the programs now for more than three years, and say they’re surprised by how successful they have been at connecting with the incredibly hard-to-reach men at the center of the city’s gun violence and getting them to accept help. But despite the recent investment of millions in private and public money, they say the anti-violence efforts don’t have nearly the scale, structure or support to make a meaningful dent in the city’s overall levels of gun violence where more than 650 people were already killed this year and another 3,200 were shot.

‘Safer playing Russian roulette’

The programs are based around street outreach, sending individuals with community cachet out to Chicago’s most violent corners to try and convince the people embroiled in armed conflicts to stop shooting.

“The core idea is that a lot of individuals who are involved in violence, especially gun violence, tend to be disconnected or locked out of a lot of mainstream institutions. So they spend a lot of their time quite literally on the street,” Northwestern University sociology professor Andrew Papachristos said. “So in order to reach them, and they’re hard to reach, you have to use and employ individuals with same lived experience, credible messengers, people who know the neighborhood and the networks and the relationships.”

The technique has a long tradition, originating in Chicago in the 1930s. But it received renewed focus, and a flush of funding from private foundations, in response to a shooting surge in 2016.

Papachristos is the director of Northwestern’s Neighborhood and Network Initiative, which is studying the anti-violence efforts Chicago CRED and Communities Partnering for Peace. He said the early findings show the street outreach workers are succeeding at finding the individuals who are in “immediate harm’s way” on Chicago’s streets.

According to Papachristos’ research, the outreach organizations are connecting with people whose risk of being shot is 50 to 100 times higher than other people in their own neighborhoods.

“We are actually talking about individuals whose risk of being a victim of gun violence dwarfs people that live on the same block,” Papachristos said. “Statistically speaking, many of these individuals are safer playing Russian roulette, than they are in terms of their risk of being a gunshot victim at somebody else’s hand.”

Cornell Prof. Max Kapustin, who is evaluating the READI program along with the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, said they’ve seen similar success at READI. And it’s an important finding, because it was an open question whether it was even possible to reach the true drivers of Chicago’s gun violence.

What’s more, research indicates the program is succeeding at getting participants to buy in. Kapustin said 55% of the high-risk individuals offered READI showed up to the program, an “incredible” success rate considering they are working with men who “have been disappointed so many times in their lives by different social systems.”

“For most of them, they’re not connected to anything we might think of as a formal social institution. They’re not in school, they’re not employed formally. For many of them, about the only public institution to which they have any sustained connection these days is the criminal justice system,” Kapustin said. “So these men are, to put it lightly, skeptical. And … it’s a real testament to the amazing work of the outreach workers.”

Papachristos said 63% of CRED participants who didn’t have a high school diploma got one through the program, and 20% of the people in Communities Partnering for Peace saw improvements in employment before COVID-19 hit. Papachristos called both numbers “huge wins.”

‘Lives are at stake’

The ultimate goal of the programs is not just to reach high-risk men, but to stop them from shooting or being shot. Kapustin said preliminary numbers show an 80% reduction in arrests for shootings and homicides among READI participants compared to the control group being used to study the program’s efficacy. He called it an “incredible reduction.”

But he said they’ve seen only a slight decrease in a READI participants’ chances of being a shooting victim, and they are still studying to see if the decrease can be attributed to READI.

“We really want to … make sure we absolutely know with confidence that it had an effect or didn’t have an effect,” Kapustin said. “Because not to put too fine a point on it, but lives are at stake, and so we really do want to make sure we get this right.”

Papachristos’ team, meanwhile, has found that gunshot victimization is down about 50% among CRED participants.

‘Gun violence is so embedded into the city’

The program’s successes come against the backdrop of Chicago’s most violent year in more than two decades, a year with more bloodshed than in 2016 when a shooting surge birthed CRED and READI.

Papachristos points out the increase in gun violence is being seen across the country, not just Chicago. But he said there are Chicago-specific issues that prevent these programs from driving down the city’s overall shooting numbers.

“Gun violence is so embedded into the city, the scale of the problem is so large, that no single program that focuses on individuals will be able to put a dent in the aggregate rate,” Papachristos said.

He estimates Chicago has about 900 gangs, or street crews, each with 10 to 15 members. That’s more than 10,000 people who “may or may not be involved in disputes” and about 200 street outreach workers to try and reach them.

“I don’t think that the scale of the investments that have been made to date, although they are tremendous, and they have pushed us a lot further than we were in 2016, they may not be quite at the level of what we need to actually meaningfully make a dent in this problem,” Kapustin said.

The response, Kapustin and Papachristos agree, should be to double down on investments that have already shown signs of success so that they can reach more people. What’s most important, they said, is that Chicago not abandon these methods in the future.

Papachristos said Chicago’s anti-violence community is not as robust as it should be because funding for street outreach has been so fickle in the past — drying up when focus turned elsewhere and forcing organizations to lay off workers or close down altogether.

“We need to invest in infrastructure that is locally coordinated, that has the support of the city and the state and federal government and it needs to be consistently funded,” Papachristos said. “I think one of the things that happens in this space is once you get a good thing going you have to keep the lights on. And that’s when you’re scrambling to try to keep people employed to do all these things. And, you know, eventually these kinds of things can fade away. I think we need consistent investment. And we need to make sure we bolster the things we think are having an impact.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.