Lack of funding threatens Baltimore's 'Safe Streets'

Op-ed: A lack of funding threatens Baltimore's Safe Streets program.

A majority of our community's collective attention, especially during this election season, is focused on preventing violence and promoting public safety in Baltimore. Our current conversations often fail to recognize that there are many drivers of violence, and preventing it from happening in the first place requires a fully-realized, multi-pronged strategy. While criminal justice and police action are essential tools, they often occur after a violent event has already taken place.

Treating violence as a public health issue and not solely a law enforcement matter is essential if we are to reduce and prevent violence. Just like an infectious disease, violence clusters and spreads geographically. And just as we would work to prevent and contain an infectious disease, we can and should use public health methodologies to stop violence in its tracks.

The Baltimore City Health Department's Safe Streets program does just this. The program deploys violence interrupters — ex-felons and ex-gang members who know their surrounding communities intimately — to intervene and prevent conflicts that lead to violence.

Catholic Charities of Baltimore is Maryland's largest private provider of human services, offering assistance to children and families, people living in poverty, individuals with intellectual disabilities, immigrants and seniors without regard to religion, race or other circumstances. We invest in promoting models that take a holistic, preventive approach to social challenges such as violence. We are proud to be launching Baltimore City's fifth Safe Streets program in Sandtown-Winchester — a community that, in the aftermath of last April's unrest, has been searching for a novel, results-based approach to address violent conflict.

Our mission is to improve the lives of all Marylanders in need and ensure that communities have access to services that enable people to lead full and independent lives. There are three key reasons why we support Safe Streets as a key component of reducing violence, therefore furthering our mission.

First, the program works. In 2014 alone, Safe Streets had 15,000 client interactions and 800 mediated conflicts, more than 80 percent of which were deemed likely or very likely to have resulted in gun violence. Moving beyond the individual and community-level effects, Safe Streets also prevents the high cost and damaging trauma that accompany a violent event.

Second, it is truly community-based. Safe Streets is based on the principle of meeting people where they are, both by employing staff that are from the same communities where posts are located and by having those staff members walk the streets, building relationships with other community members and ensuring trust and credibility.

Third, the time is now. If we do not invest in models like Safe Streets today, our city will continue to experience the same cycle of violence that has plagued us for decades. Traditional approaches to combating violence simply haven't been enough. Safe Streets is not only complementary to these current methods, but its public health-based approach also allows us to track, in real-time, the progress that is being made against acts of violence.

Despite these compelling reasons to support the program, and despite an extensive track record of success, Safe Streets is in critical need of a sustainable funding stream. As Catholic Charities works with the Baltimore City Health Department to launch the Sandtown-Winchester post, four other Safe Streets posts in McElderry Park, Mondawmin, Cherry Hill and Park Heights face significant funding cuts at the city, state and federal level. Without these funds, Safe Streets may need to reduce or close its programs — erasing the progress that has been made over the past five years.

Keeping our communities safe is a shared mission and responsibility. To ensure that programs such as Safe Streets can continue to operate, we must take collective action. We must call for additional funding — at the city, state and federal levels as well as within our philanthropic community.

Together, we can ensure that Baltimore City continues to take strides toward eliminating violence.

William J. McCarthy, Jr. is executive director of Catholic Charities of Baltimore. His email is bmccarth@cc-md.org.

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