After five months of recruiting Baltimore's most dangerous young men, Roca ready to show its progress

Roca Baltimore, a public-private partnership working to disrupt the cycle of violence in the city with relentless outreach to the highest risk young people, hosts a community open house. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

Armed with a list of 180 young men considered Baltimore’s most dangerous, outreach workers have scoured city neighborhoods since July to find them and persuade them to join Roca, a radical anti-violence program.

In some cases they’re too late. Some of the men have been killed in the past five months or locked up for crimes such as armed robbery or drug trafficking.


For those still available, Roca is recruiting them to take part in the nonprofit’s life skills, therapy and educational classes and transitional employment services. The goal is to give the men, ages 16 to 24, the skills to turn their lives around. The catch? Roca’s outreach workers do not take no for an answer: They relentlessly pursue the men until they join.

Sheldon Smith-Gray, 21, was shocked and suspicious when a group of volunteers first knocked on his door. The at-home visit resembled those sometimes made by police — a similarity that made him suspicious at first.

”I just heard them out,” Smith-Gray said. “I could hear they were genuine. It was an easy decision.”

“There are 180-odd names on a list that we have to go find, because we don’t know how long we have,” said Kurtis Palermo, Roca’s director of operations and employment in Baltimore. “For many of them, it is the first time in their life they’ve been told their life actually matters and there are adults who will continue to be here.”

The anti-violence program Roca begins its work in Baltimore this week: hounding some of the city's most dangerous young men in the hopes of creating relationships that will disrupt the city’s cycle of violence.

Roca hosted an open house Thursday to showcase what its outreach workers have been doing to disrupt the cycles of violence in Baltimore since opening its doors here this summer. Mayor Catherine Pugh, police leaders and donors visited its Midtown-Belvedere headquarters near Park Avenue and Chase Street, a site selected as neutral ground to draw men from both West and East Baltimore.

Lime green walls of Roca’s Baltimore branch divides the center into common areas, quiet spaces and conference rooms where the men can learn important life skills.

Roca was brought to Baltimore with a $17 million funding package after operating for 30 years in Massachusetts. The money, which will pay for the services for four years, comes from the city budget, Baltimore businesses and local philanthropies.

Pugh became aware of the program during her mayoral campaign. In trying to put together the funding package for Roca, the mayor touted the program as a key fit with her crime-reduction plan.

“The city can’t do this work by itself,” Pugh said Thursday. “People in the community respond when the program is right. We believed in Roca because it’s about changing lives.”

Roca — which means “rock” in Spanish — aims to serve up to 100 men in its first year, gradually increasing to 300 annually. Thirteen outreach workers are on staff, including 12 from Baltimore.

Founder Molly Baldwin, a Baltimore native, said Roca is not offering a quick fix. But she believes its work can transform lives over time, based on the results from Massachusetts.

“We’re just at the beginning of a long road,” Baldwin said. “As we get to know them, we find young people who are tired and want something else. It becomes our extraordinary privilege and humble responsibility to try to do this.”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh delivered her second state of the city speech since taking office.

The program’s data show that men typically take 15 to 18 months before they show up consistently, Baldwin said.

Deborah Leedsbey said the outreach volunteers do not let her 20-year-old son, Desmond Russell, skip out on attendance. If Russell does not show up, staffers often ask to be let into his room so they can get him out of bed themselves. Recently, Leedsbey noted that lessons she tried to impart to Russell as a child have started to resonate with him.


“I’m a mom, so I still whoop and holler and fuss,” Leedsbey said. “But he’s been meeting his goals.”

When the men do start regularly attending, Baldwin said, Roca has a strong track record of helping them stay out of jail and in jobs. Last year, Roca worked with 854 high-risk young men in Massachusetts. Of the 283 who completed the first two years of intensive outreach and services, 84 percent avoided arrest and 76 percent held jobs for at least three months.

The list of men the Roca outreach team is pursuing in Baltimore comes from police, probation and patrol agents and juvenile justice officials. They are considered the city’s most at-risk young men, and those who have been previously unwilling to give up street crime or gang involvement.

Palermo said the consistency the outreach workers show is what proves to the men that Roca is making a commitment to them.

Smith-Gray started out at Roca “testing” the staff members to see if they kept the promises made to him. They had pledged to pick up the phone day or night, so he called in the early hours of the morning. They promised he’d always be welcome at Roca, so he tried to instigate arguments.

“They passed every test I gave them,” he said. “I gave them all sorts of tests. I cussed them out just to see what happened. They let me cool off and then we ate lunch together like it was nothing.”

Once the men begin attending sessions to teach coping skills based on cognitive behavioral therapy, or educational courses that help them earn their GED diplomas, they are invited to join a work crew. The work is considered transitional employment that pays minimum wage and teaches them “soft skills” they need to succeed in the open job market, such as showing up on time, teamwork and problem-solving.

The Roca team launched its first work crew of five men in September. They have been providing trail maintenance in the city and other odd jobs to help the Recreation and Parks Department.

One 20-year-old man, who was kicked off the work crew recently for failing to show up for his shifts, got upset earlier this month in Roca’s office, Palermo said. He put his hand through a window, smashed two bookshelves and threatened to kill Palermo and another worker. The team tried to calm the man down before he walked out.

Soon afterward, Palermo said, the man came back in tears and they invited him inside.

For many men, participating in the process dredges up emotions and fear as they confront their future and the consequences of their past choices, Palermo said. The key is to continue to work with them through the process, he said.

As Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh asks Gov. Larry Hogan for $10 million to fund a new anti-crime program, the Roca program, some in the city's House delegation are questioning whether it is the best strategy.

“Roca is his safe place that he comes to,” Palermo said. “At that moment, we were taking away his safety. He said, ‘I am sorry. I can’t believe I did that. I have nowhere to go.’ ”

Despite the threats they sometime receive, Roca says its workers have never faced major incidents involving their health and safety. Among the precautions the organization has in place is a requirement that the outreach workers remain in pairs or groups of three. Roca also works with police and other partners to monitor patterns of violence in the neighborhoods they frequent.


In Massachusetts, Roca has encountered some violence. Two men were convicted last year in the death of a rival gang member who was working on a Roca crew shoveling snow. Despite having promised to work together peacefully, one of the men attacked the victim.

Palermo said the stakes couldn’t be higher on all sides.

Outreach workers in Baltimore went to one young man’s home nine, 10 and 11 times to attempt to persuade him to give Roca a try. But they could not reach him in time: The man was killed.

Palermo said his grandmother and sister called the Roca worker to tell them he had died and to deliver a message: No one had ever put so much effort into trying to save his life.