Anti-violence program Roca, funded by private donors, coming to Baltimore, Mayor Pugh says

Mayor Catherine Pugh said Wednesday that an anti-violence program that focuses on the most troubled teenage boys and young men is coming to Baltimore, thanks to $10 million donated by charities and business leaders.

Pugh had been seeking $16 million to bring the program, called Roca, to Baltimore for four years. She received commitments from several private foundations totaling $3.5 million, and at a meeting with the Greater Baltimore Committee last week secured $6.5 million more from businesses.

Pugh had also sought assistance from the state. The mayor, a Democrat, said Wednesday that the state hadn’t committed money, but Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said he hasn’t ruled it out.

If state money isn’t made available, city officials will look into their own budget to make up the $6 million gap, according to a briefing document on the program obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

Roca has been working for 30 years in Massachusetts with boys and young men with criminal records and drug abuse problems and who are a risk to commit violence. The program has a record of connecting the men to jobs through intensive mentoring.

“We believe the approach to violence reduction is holistic,” the mayor said. “It’s not just about policing and putting people in jail.”

Bringing the program to Baltimore is a key element of Pugh’s effort to battle crime in the city. It doesn’t rely on the criminal justice system and will launch at a time when activists and City Council members have been pushing for alternatives to policing even amid record levels of violence in the city.

“We have to get to the crux of this issue, and that’s our young people,” said Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee.

Pugh made her announcement in a City Hall conference room packed with a crowd that indicates broad support for the program: Business leaders, heads of major charities, local and state politicians, and law enforcement officials all showed up.

“We are really excited about what they are going to do,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said.

Roca — Spanish for “rock” — has worked with thousands of young men ages 17 to 24 since launching in 1988. It closely mentors them over a four-year period, with what it says are positive results: The program’s records indicate that few of the men were arrested after the first two years, and most got a job by the end. The program has attracted particular attention for its focus on collecting data to measure its success.

Molly Baldwin, Roca’s founder, said she expects to launch the program in Baltimore in July with about 75 young men, with plans to grow to almost 400 by the fourth year. Because the mentoring lasts four years, it will need to secure more funding for later groups to complete the program.

Baldwin, who is from Baltimore, said her organization is designed to reach people who aren’t in school and aren’t willing to work with any other kind of community organization or social program. She called them “those who never show up.”

“They are angry, they are left out, they are depressed and often cause harm, and no one wants to be with them,” she said. “Someone walks into Roca ready to participate — we send them out the door to another program. But run from us, tell us to go to hell, and you are in.”

To find those people, Roca relies on referrals from police, the juvenile justice system, and parole and probation agents.

The group’s work in Massachusetts has not been without problems. Two men were convicted last month in the death of a third man from a rival gang who was working on a Roca snow-shoveling crew. One of the attackers had also been on the crew, but had promised to work peacefully with the victim. Baldwin said the organization tightened its security after the incident.

Baldwin said the first steps in launching the program in Baltimore will be to analyze data to understand the young people it will be working with, identifying a facility to use and hiring a local staff. Baldwin said she is committed to living in Baltimore half of the time.

The deal is the culmination of years of planning — work that looked in November as if it might come to nothing.

Baldwin said in an email to local leaders then that it didn’t look as though critical state funding would be available. Meanwhile, other cities were trying to draw Roca as well.

At a separate event Wednesday, Hogan said he hasn’t ruled out putting funds for Roca in his budget for next year. But he said Pugh had been seeking immediate funding, which he wasn’t legally able to provide.

Hogan has clashed with Pugh on how to tackle violence in recent weeks. He came to Baltimore last week to announce his own plan; Pugh called it “nothing new” and skipped the announcement.

The governor said Roca seemed worthwhile, but he questioned whether its benefits would be felt quickly enough.

“I came up with a plan to try to help Baltimore City immediately remove violent criminals who are shooting people in the streets,” Hogan said. “And all of my focus was on that. And I said while Roca was effective in long-term effects of crime in general, it was not going to take those killers off the streets today.”

With the prospect of state money uncertain, Pugh asked members of the Greater Baltimore Committee last week for help. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the Johns Hopkins University, T. Rowe Price and Whiting-Turner agreed to pitch in money.

Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Hopkins, said he’d been hearing about Roca for years. He praised Pugh’s determination to finally bring it to Baltimore.

“We’re here, I think very much, Madam Mayor, because of you,” Daniels said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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