Antione Tates was suspicious of the white man who kept showing up at his West Baltimore home, fearing he was a police officer or a probation agent. His mother pleaded with him to call the phone number left at the door.
The number turned out to be for an outreach worker for Roca, an intensive anti-violence program that focuses on the city’s most-at-risk young men by enrolling them in programs that aim to change their behavior. The goal is to make them less inclined to resort to violence.
It’s had success elsewhere, primarily in Massachusetts, and it arrived in Baltimore last year as part of a four-year, $17 million project funded by the city, businesses and local philanthropies. Since then, Roca officials say they have made more than 13,000 attempts to reach at-risk young men like Tates and enroll them into therapy and educational classes and transitional employment services.
Roca officials say they don’t give up, and they try hard not to take no for an answer. Their staffers make multiple visits to the same young men — as in the notes left on the front door — hoping that something will finally click.
Roca workers have been successful in speaking directly to only about half — 6,378— of the young men they approach. Even after that, it takes repeated attempts and regular prodding to nudge them into the program, and officials said it will take at least two years for them to make meaningful change. Participants are often referred by police, probation and patrol agents and juvenile justice officials, who recognize they need help beyond a jail cell or the court system.
Since launching in Baltimore in July 2018, Roca has enrolled 95 young men in job training and education programs, which is on target for the goals it set. Roca officials hope to raise the number to 175 next year, and enroll an additional 60 young men each year for the next two years.
City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said the council receives updates from Roca leaders, adding it is too soon to tell if there are substantial results. Schleifer said he’s met with participants as they worked outside the police department’s downtown headquarters cleaning up trash.
Roca has “certainly done a lot of outreach,” he said. “With me, it’s always about if it’s working, what is the return on the investment."
Roca’s founder, Molly Baldwin, a Baltimore native who started the program 30 years ago in Massachusetts, said, “I think it’s been a remarkable start. I think what we are hearing and seeing from young people is a desire for change.”
She cautioned against comparing the fledgling Baltimore site to other established sites in Massachusetts.
Kurtis Palermo, Roca’s director of operations and employment in Baltimore, said Baltimore’s trauma is more significant than in other cities, but the program operates as it always has.
“We built a model based on relationships and trust,” he said. “The alternative is death or jail for these young men.
Former Mayor Catherine Pugh brought the program to Baltimore as part of her crime reduction plan. It provides services for men ages 16-24.
Data from the Massachusetts sites show Roca has served 904 participants in 2019 and 720 stayed with the program — an 80% annual retention rate.
Of those deemed ready for job placement, 77% have a job.
The program also boasts a reduced recidivism rate. Officials say of the 90% of participants from 2012 to 2019 who had committed violent offenses before coming to Roca, only 16 percent were convicted of a violent crime after joining the program.
Coaxing young men to join the program when they have otherwise been left adrift has proven to be challenging work. In recent months, five young men identified by the Baltimore program have been killed and eight others have been injured in shootings. Others are just difficult to locate. A last-known address often leads outreach workers to the steps of vacant rowhomes, said Teshombae Harvell, a Roca outreach coordinator.
Of the referrals Roca has received in Baltimore, 62 were already incarcerated.
“It’s second nature to be reactionary. They’ve had so much trauma, they treat everything as a threat and the instinct is to fight, flight or freeze.”— Molly Baldwin, Roca founder
Harvell, an ex-offender himself who lost a son to violence in 2017, is among those responsible for reaching out to the young men. He’s been nicknamed “the bounty hunter."
The relationship between Baltimore’s police department and its citizens has been a contentious one, punctuated by incidents like the death of Freddie Gray and the arrest and conviction of eight officers, some charged with robbing citizens and stealing drugs while on duty, among other crimes.
But Harvell said police officers have been a big boost to the program. He said a large number of referrals come from police officers who come in contact with young men and recognize they will not benefit from arrests.
“They really want to help these young men,” he said. According to the program figures, 71% of youth referrals came from police.
Even when young men agree to talk to Roca staff, other challenges remain. Harvell recalled meeting a young man outside his house on the steps. While they talked, a car pulled up and several armed men got out. Harvell, worried about the confrontation, said he talked to the young men to calm them and prevent any violence that day.
Getting a young man like Tates, 21, through the door was a small victory.
Tates, who is African American, remembers approaching the relationship warily, even after he made contact with the outreach worker in April. He recalled how he would arrange to meet him, then stake out the meeting spot and spy on the worker to make sure he indeed was not law enforcement.
Eventually, Tates started regularly coming to the program, joining one of its three work crews who are assigned jobs around the city. Some days they landscape for the city’s rec and parks department; other days they collect trash near City Hall. Roca officials say 32 teens have worked 6,588 hours and received paychecks.
But Baldwin said the program’s primary focus is teaching emotional control to young men who have largely been brought up with challenges such as poverty, violence and systemic racism, and endured substantial trauma.
“It’s not a matter of jobs. They can’t keep them," she said. Rather, it’s teaching young men to think before they act, and potentially before they make a negative, life-altering decision.
The program is based on brain science. Baldwin says young people don’t fully develop until age 25. Those who suffer significant trauma are slower to develop, constantly feel under threat and shut off. Violence becomes a natural reaction, Palermo said.
“It’s second nature to be reactionary,” he said. “They’ve had so much trauma, they treat everything as a threat and the instinct is to fight, flight or freeze.”
For Tates and others in the program, progress is not linear. He recalled in July when he got fired from the work crew after a dispute with a supervisor over a water break. Tates said he blew up at the supervisor, threw hand sanitizer and hot sauce on the work truck, and quit Roca. He later threw a fit at the office, flipping over a table, which caused him to get kicked out of the building, but only temporarily, Harvell said.
The regression is expected, Baldwin said. Follow-up by Roca staff after such an event is crucial.
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The morning after Tates said he quit, he got a call from an outreach worker who was standing outside his house asking him to come back. Still angry about the situation, Tates said he declined. But after a few days of reflection and critical needling from Roca officials, he said he realized he had been wrong.
“I came to the conclusion I was being childish,” Tates said.
He also realized he wanted to stay in the program because of what he was getting out of it, he said. Unlike other programs, which would have dropped him for this behavior, Roca officials wouldn’t give up on him.
“You think, ‘These people here care about me.’ To me, that’s some form of a support system," Tates said.
He went back to work the next week. He stays after work at Roca’s Baltimore office on Park Avenue, where he’s safe. On a recent day, as a group of young men played a Madden NFL video game in a common area of the office, Tates was completing chores, taking out the trash. He said he’s working toward getting his driver’s license and hopes one day to own his car dealership.
Tates said he knew he had to change after he was arrested twice in one month, charged with selling drugs and with illegally possessing a gun. As the second-oldest of eight children, he said he was looking for ways to support himself.
Without Roca, Tates said he’d likely be out on the corner. Possibly, like a childhood friend of his, he’d be dead.