The mayor’s office is awarding $6 million in funding to help expand street outreach programs to stop violence on the city’s South and West sides.

The funding, allocated through the Chicago Department of Public Health, build on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s shift away from public safety strategies that rely only on policing and instead will tackle the root causes of violence, the mayor’s office said.

“Gun violence is not only a public safety issue, it’s a public health crisis,” Lightfoot said. “…We are putting tools directly into the hands of our community-based outreach workers who every day utilize de-escalation skills to interrupt violence, prevent retaliation and build positive relationships with those who are at the highest risk of violence.”

The funds, being distributed by Metropolitan Family Services, will help convenes 11 community groups under the Communities Partnering 4 Peace initiative. 

The groups that will receive funding are:

  • Target Area Development in Auburn Gresham, Englewood and West Englewood
  • Institute for Nonviolence Chicago (INVC) in Austin and West Garfield Park
  • Precious Blood Ministries in Back of the Yards
  • Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) in Chicago Lawn
  • Breakthrough Ministries in East Garfield Park
  • Acclivus in Greater Grand Crossing
  • Alliance of Local Services (ALSO) in Humboldt Park
  • New Life Ministries in Little Village
  • UCAN in North Lawndale and Roseland
  • Claretian Associates in South Shore
  • Roseland CeaseFire

Outreach workers are credible messengers — trusted members of the community who have relationships and shared experiences with the folks on the street who are trapped in circumstances where violence thrives, said Vaughn Bryant, who leads. Communities Partnering 4 Peace.

“They often come from the street organizations in that community,” Bryant said. “Given that they’ve turned their lives around, they can walk in those communities on unarmed and be safe because they have credibility amongst the people in those communities.”

The outreach workers build long-term relationships with people vulnerable to gun violence so they can guide them toward a better path by connecting them to social services like behavior health support, job readiness training and legal aid provided by Communities Partnering 4 Peace partners.

The added funding will allow some of the community groups to increase the number of outreach workers they employ. For others, it will ensure the sustainability of the street outreach programs so workers can be long-term, permanent figures in a neighborhood’s social infrastructure.

“We often talk about trauma at the individual level. But there is also organizational and systemic trauma,” Bryant said. “When you have lapses in funding and these organizations have to lay people off, that’s a traumatic experience in and of itself.”

The funds will also help fund the Metropolitan Peace Academy, an 18-week training on conflict mediation and de-escalation, which also earns outreach workers six credit hours toward an associate’s degree at City Colleges of Chicago.

In North Lawndale, outreach workers employed by community partner UCAN have become a regular fixture at crime hotspots where they intervene to stop violence before it happens and prevent retaliation after a violent incident. They are tuned into the historical gang beefs, economic struggles and drug operations in the neighborhood, so they know better than anyone how and when to steer young folks away from violent situations.

But lately, the violence interruption workers have been tackling another epidemic disproportionately impacting Black Chicagoans: coronavirus. Using the same relationship-building tactics, the outreach team has been advising young people on the streets to stay home and sharing tips on staying healthy.

“We can definitely give a better outlook on what’s going on in our community. Coming from us as credible people to them, they understand it better,” said UCAN violence interrupter Reggie Woods. “Everybody don’t listen to the news. Everybody don’t listen to the police.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.