The horrific event in Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighborhood July 2 caused the tragic loss of two young lives, with many more injured and countless people left traumatized. Among the traumatized members of the community were a small group of remarkable people wearing orange shirts who spend every workday walking trouble spots around Brooklyn and nine other city neighborhoods. These are parts of the city where, sadly, the data tells us shootings are most likely to occur.
These Safe Streets violence interrupters are performing heroically every day in the neighborhoods where they live and grew up, utilizing their relationships and knowledge of the streets to teach positive and appropriate ways to resolve conflicts and saving countless lives. They are all working in dangerous situations every day, and all they have to rely on are their teammates, reputation, negotiation skills and the aforementioned orange shirt.
The men and women doing this life-saving work often have their own past that includes behaviors they are currently working against, and each have made life-altering decisions within themselves to work toward improving the situation on the streets. I have had the privilege of getting to know many violence interrupters, and it has helped me to understand why they do what they do, and how important the work is to them. It is hard to help others understand the leadership and passion that each of them brings to work every day without having an opportunity to sit and talk directly to them.
The work of Safe Streets has recently been highlighted through some media reports and even by elected officials in the critical process of trying to understand how such a tragedy could happen. Questions are being raised about effectiveness and methods that are used by Safe Streets, despite the data behind the model being strong. The reality is that there are always things we can do better, and we work every day to do exactly that, but human services are often an inexact science.
Governments make choices about the programs they want to fund, and Safe Streets has been established as a priority of Baltimore’s current administration. The providers chosen must implement the program in a manner that is true to the model. We aren’t able to change those critical underpinnings of the program.
Some may even question why an organization such as Catholic Charities might get into this area of work, but our reality is that we are committed to second chances and cherishing the divine within all people. In a world where there is a 20-year life expectancy difference depending on what part of the city you were born in, we believe that the only way to change this narrative is to intervene in addressing all the challenging social determinants of health — from poverty, homelessness and hunger to mental health, drug use and violence.
I encourage everyone to keep the appropriate process of raising questions separate from the people doing this heroic work. The amazing staff members of Safe Streets are worthy of our admiration and applause. In looking to figure out what can improve, we should be careful and clear to make sure that we don’t hurt their ability to do their jobs.
Kevin Keegan is director of family services at Catholic Charities of Baltimore.