When there’s a gang shooting in his part of Chicago, Terrance Henderson often heads to the hospital. As a violence prevention worker, he knows that’s a good place to try and slow an escalating gang conflict, push for peace or at least prevent retaliation.
“A person that’s at risk, their most vulnerable state is in the hospital once something has happened. You know, people don’t really get it until it hits you directly,” Henderson said. “You’ve got to hit them with consequences. Like, ‘These are the consequences for what you’re doing. If you like this, then keep doing what you’re doing. But if you don’t like what you’re feeling and how you’re feeling right now, then you got to change.’ ”
But with the coronavirus pandemic, that kind of bedside intervention isn’t possible. Now, guys like Henderson are waiting outside of the hospital, hoping to catch someone who they can talk down.
“We’re trying to be outside the gates in case we can engage any family members or friends on the outside of the perimeter,” said Deon Patrick, an outreach supervisor in Austin. “That way we can give them the resources that they need to help them through this situation. … I think that a lot of us feel we have a moral obligation to continue to engage.”
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order has not slowed gun violence in Chicago. Chicago Police Department data show shootings are up 10% compared to the same time period last year. But the order, and the social distancing methods in general, have hamstrung frontline anti-violence workers.
“The violence is a disease”
Street outreach workers are often former gang members. Many have spent time in prison. Organizations rely on their knowledge of neighborhoods and their ability to connect with young people at the center of Chicago’s gun violence. They try to establish relationships with people on the street and convince them to choose a better path or, at least, to stop shooting.
“We do our job by people being outside. Like, we want people to be outside so we can interact and get a feel of what’s going on in the street,” Henderson said. “We’re not getting the everyday vibe of just being able to infuse ourselves with crowds and talk and congregate with people. Like, that’s what outreach is about, the interpersonal relationship building.”
Organizations have tried to adjust their methods to meet the current situation. Some outreach workers are driving their routes instead of walking. There’s more of a focus on connecting with people via phone calls, texts or social media. But Henderson said none of that can replace face-to-face interactions.
Henderson, who is an outreach supervisor in the Pullman and Roseland neighborhoods, said he is still doing his outreach on foot, trying to talk to people in person while maintaining a safe distance.
“We don’t engage guys the same way. There’s no handshaking or high-fiving or dapping or hugging, you know. We just walk past; we speak; we may toe tap each other,” Henderson said.
Beyond the limited contact, the coronavirus shutdown has practically eliminated the services that outreach workers like Henderson can offer. There’s no in-person counseling or drug treatment available. No jobs to be offered to gang members wanting to change their lives.
“That’s one of the things that we’ve been talking about as a change strategically is how do we engage these guys and what do we have to offer them now?” Patrick said.
Patrick said often a job opportunity is what gives him an entrance to talk to guys on the street.
“It gives us the opportunity to engage them in a conversation that they may not have with us otherwise,” he said. “So it’s definitely taken away from us being able to do the work that we need to do.”
But both men are adamant that it’s important they keep trying with whatever tools they have available to them.
“It’s just a little difficult now getting the interpersonal relationship building with guys through this pandemic. But we understand that this violence don’t stop,” Henderson said. “The violence is a disease that’s really taking us out. So we … can’t take our foot off the gas.”
Violence prevention moves to Zoom
Meanwhile other elements of violence prevention, like everything else these days, are being done on Zoom.
READI Chicago, a program that tries to connect the men closest to Chicago gun violence with jobs and therapy, has essentially paused their in-person outreach efforts.
Executive Director Eddie Bocanegra said he’s not willing to put his workers at risk trying to recruit new program participants.
Instead, READI outreach workers are making phone calls and taking other steps to try to stay connected with the men already in their program.
READI, which stands for Rapid Employment and Development Initiative, has been dropping off care packages for participants with food and toiletries. And they’ve moved their daily sessions to Zoom so participants can still get the cognitive behavioral therapy and professional development help. In fact, the convenience of virtual sessions has pushed participation up 10%.
READI is still paying its participants a salary as well, even though it’s not possible for them to go out and work during the shutdown.
“That’s [one] reason why we believe we’re seeing our participants not engage in negative activity right now, because they know there’s still steady income coming in,” Bocanegra said.
“We gotta chime in right now”
The Metropolitan Peace Academy, which trains people to be street outreach workers like Henderson and Patrick, had its first virtual session on Monday. Almost three dozen people, many former gang members and ex-offenders, logged into Zoom for a session on how to successfully intervene in street conflicts.
At one point an instructor asked the class for examples of ways they’ve been adapting to the coronavirus crisis.
Donnell Gardner talked about reasons for optimism and the need to keep at it. Gardner told the virtual class about a recent experience he had near Roseland Hospital, a COVID-19 testing site. Gardner described seeing two rival gang members pass each other as each was taking an elderly relative to get tested.
“So they are basically looking at each other, like what they gonna do? They can’t make a phone call to do something because that person got his older family with him and this person got his older family with him,” Gardner said. “So I actually sat back and watched them peace out with each other.”
Gardner said he had tried to broker peace between the two before to no avail. But in that instance, with each of them sharing in the same difficult experience “they squashed it right then and there.”
Gardner wants to build on that moment to create a lasting peace, but that’s tough to do while social distancing.
Despite the obstacles Gardner told the group he was going to try and connect with the two rivals again.
“We gotta chime in right now,” Gardner said.