Sometimes, the problem is as minor as kids opening a fire hydrant on a hot summer day and splashing someone’s freshly washed car.
Other times, it’s a flare-up between two points of a love triangle, or an old grudge resurfacing now that someone is back home from prison.
“Those things,” said Steve Diggs, “can escalate real, real fast.”
For Diggs and other violence interrupters for Baltimore’s Safe Streets program, who typically are ex-offenders themselves, the goal is to mediate and resolve even trivial-seeming conflicts before they turn into something more serious or even fatal.
Safe Streets is now in its 14th year and operating in 10 neighborhoods, including the newest site, Belvedere, in Northwest Baltimore near Pimlico Race Course, where Diggs works.
The program has been in the spotlight lately. In the first half of this year, two Safe Streets staff members were felled by the same kind of violence they sought to quell, Dante “Tater” Barksdale and Kenyell “Benny” Wilson.
Then on Friday, Mayor Brandon Scott unveiled a five-year crime-fighting plan that calls for tripling the number of violence prevention programs, but also revamping current model into what he called “Safe Streets 2.”
Scott envisions Safe Streets as “evolving” to a more comprehensive violence prevention program, with the interventions its staff conducts leading to offers of further services.
This tracks with calls from researchers like Daniel Webster, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention & Policy, to more closely mesh Safe Streets with programs like Roca that offer behavioral therapy and coaching in life skills to help address educational or employment deficits.
Some of that already appears to be happening. The Safe Street Belvedere workers tend to know who to call if they come across someone who needs assistance with anything from food to housing to drug treatment to just mowing an overgrown and abandoned lot. A violence responder based at Sinai Hospital, whose parent company, LifeBridge Health, is the site’s community partner, said he recruits shooting victims to Roca, a nonprofit program that offers therapy, educational classes and employment services.
The Belvedere Safe Streets site launched last year. But, slowed by the pandemic that prevented much of the face-to-face encounters vital to its model, it doesn’t anticipate being up to full staffing until the end of the summer.
Still, those on board have been working a rough rectangle bound by Park Heights, West Belvedere and Wabash avenues, with a jagged border that extends in one section to Woodland Avenue. (Safe Street sites align with police precincts, although they work independently from law enforcement.)
In their orange and black shirts, they stroll both residential streets and “hot spots” where, as Belvedere Safe Streets director Marty Henson says, “everybody knows this is the place where they hustle.” It’s part public relations, to let people know they’re here and available, and part reconnaissance.
“We take the temperature of the community,” Henson said.
Is someone returning from prison, and had the mother of his child been seeing someone else? Was what seemed like a settled conflict really just on pause?
Certain scenarios tend to trigger internal warning bells. Diggs recalled he intervened on a beef that seemed destined for trouble when one combatant called for out-of-the-neighborhood help. Baltimore tends toward territorialism.
“One girl called her cousin from the east side to come to the west side,” he said. “The whole neighborhood could be in an uproar over that all summer.”
“If he’s coming from the east side to the west side,” agreed Albert Brown, the Belvedere site supervisor, “it’s not for conversation.”
The site’s newest hire, Jamal “Cecil” Crandell, was a week into his job when he landed his first mediation — two guys squabbling over an open fire hydrant kids were splashing in. Crandell said he got them to agree to reducing the pressure of the spewing water, and when one remained angry, they compromised on a 4 p.m. shut-off time.
Walking through the neighborhood, everyone seems to know at least one of the team members. They run into people they grew up with, friends of their parents or siblings or “an OG who actually raised me up a little bit when I was coming up,” as Crandell called one man. They are something of local celebrities to some of the kids.
“Whassup!” a little boy squealed from the porch of a house they passed.
“Whassup!” they called back.
“I want to grow up like y’all,” the boy said.
The workers take a particular interest in youths. “We’re gonna get them before the streets get them,” Brown said.
They’ve had after-school programs, providing a place where kids can do homework, and are setting up a youth council. One of the workers chokes up thinking of a boy he mentored in the past. He never realized how bad his home situation was until the boy got “took” by Child Protective Services, although the child eventually was returned.
Henson said they’re keenly aware of the limitations of what they can accomplish.
“I know we’re not going to save everybody,” he said.
His analogy is car crashes. “Some vehicles are totaled and beyond repair, and then some of them you can fix,” Henson said. “I look at it like: those that can be saved, we save, and those we can’t, we just can’t.”
“Sometimes,” Diggs said, “you have to wait for something to happen, then you can prevent the second, third or fourth incident.”
They’re setting up their headquarters in a former barber shop on Park Heights Avenue. This past week, a half-dozen kids helped them unpack boxes one day, while a Safe Streets official borrowed an office to screen a job applicant on another.
It’s been a quiet couple of weeks, the staff says, although still fresh in their minds is what police called a “running gunbattle” that killed three men in their 20s in the area during Memorial Day weekend.
Even during calmer stretches, it’s hard to relax, Henson said.
“A lot of times nothing is going on — or we don’t know it’s going on,” he said.
Workers are still coping with the killings of Wilson and Barksdale, a particularly beloved figure who recruited some of them into the program. The family of one Belvedere worker begged him to stay home from work after Wilson’s death.
Shantay Jackson, who heads the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which oversees Safe Streets, said staff have been offered assistance with the emotional fallout.
“We consider ourselves a family and we’re healing while we continue to do this work,” she said.
That they work under such trying circumstances is “remarkable,” said Adam Rosenberg, vice president for violence intervention and prevention for LifeBridge Health, the community partner of Safe Streets Belvedere.
“They’re throwing themselves in really challenging situations,” he said, “and at great risk for them.”
Safe Streets meshes with the mission of LifeBridge’s new Center for Hope that, under one roof, seeks to address all forms of violence and trauma whether from child, elder or partner abuse or crime in the community.
“Violence is not siloed,” said Rosenberg, who directs the center. Safe Streets is “part of our health system now.”
In addition to the violence interrupters, there are responders based at Sinai Hospital who try to speak, at bedside or in follow-up calls, to shooting victims and offer services.
The city is evaluating Safe Streets to determine how to expand and update it. Webster reviewed the program when there were four sites, publishing research in 2012 that found it helped reduce homicides and fatal shootings to varying degrees in the different locations.
Webster advocates for updating the program, which is based on a 1990s-era model, to adapt to how crime trends have changed over the decades. He said what’s needed is a more expansive model that addresses wherever violence erupts, rather than staying within the Safe Street site boundaries — something akin to how fire and emergency medical services cover the city.
“We don’t say, ‘Park Heights, we don’t have fire service for your community, we just have it for Sandtown,’” Webster said.
He is heartened to see that Scott’s plan calls for a more comprehensive approach.
“I hope that part of the plan involves more training, oversight and support for front-line workers, as well as coordination across sites,” he said.
These days, as Safe Streets figures to expand and shapeshift under the new plan, the work continues, block by block, corner by corner.
At their twice-daily briefings, before the violence interrupters in the Belvedere site head out in the afternoon and when they return in the evening, the staff checks up on what’s going on, not just in the neighborhood, but with their own well-being.
On a recent day, they were mostly feeling positive, about the team is staffing up, about wives, fiancees and children doing well.
But loss is rarely far from their thoughts. They discussed who would be attending the “shooting response” that the program hosts, in which representatives of each site gather from across the city when a shooting happens within a Safe Streets area. And they thought about the work they, but not their slain colleagues, will continue doing.
“When I wake up, I try to pray and be grateful to be blessed with another day,” Henson told his staff. “Just because I wake up doesn’t mean I’m owed a day.”