Pastor Marvin McKenstry Jr. waited for more than an hour at his West Baltimore church, but the young man he was supposed to meet did not show.
“He was spinning us for a minute,” recalled McKenstry of the young man who told them he was waiting for a Lyft ride at first but never made it to the church.
McKenstry, who is pastor of the Victory House Worship Center, decided to go find the man in Penn North. McKenstry and two outreach workers from the nonprofit Youth Advocate Programs met with the man to encourage him not to engage in violence and instead to participate in the city’s violence intervention program, known as the Group Violence Reduction Strategy.
The young man has not been the victim of violence and not been identified as a perpetrator of violence since that day in early 2022, McKenstry said. He also has a steady job working for the city’s Department of Public Works and stable housing.
It’s a result city officials hope to replicate under the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, a centerpiece of the antiviolence efforts of Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration. It targets individuals most at risk for violence, including would-be trigger-pullers and potential gunshot victims. The program works to offer them services in hopes of helping them avoid violence.
“A huge part of GVRS’s success is that it combines traditional enforcement with resources and services designed to give residents at high risk of being a victim or perpetrator of violent crime the opportunity to get their lives back on track,” Scott said in a statement. “This is about breaking the cycle of violence that continues to plague our communities by treating its root causes. In order to produce sustainable public safety outcomes, we need to understand that incidents of violence are merely symptoms of a larger public health issue.”
The program has faced scrutiny from City Council members who expressed frustration for its slow rollout amid the city’s unabated violence. Last week, Baltimore surpassed 300 homicides for the eighth year in a row.
Officials with the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, known as MONSE, said they aim to reach 75 program participants through this fiscal year and plan to expand the program to other districts in the future. As of Nov. 16, the program has made 118 “custom notifications” where individuals identified as being at risk are contacted by a group of law enforcement officials, MONSE staff and community members like McKenstry. There have been 69 participants who have accepted services, according to MONSE officials.
But the work has its challenges.
McKenstry and Ray C. Kelly, who has long advocated for police reforms and heads the Citizens Policing Project, have been tapped by MONSE to reach out to prospective participants and encourage them to accept the city’s offer. In one case, those doing the initial outreach could not locate one man at three different addresses and had to use their street contacts to connect with him. Often, when they do make contact with individuals, they are met with skepticism about the program, which is run by the city and involves police.
The young man McKenstry first met on the Penn North street corner was skeptical.
“The whole time, it was like ‘I don’t know what you got going on. You ain’t never invited me to your church before,’” McKenstry recalled of the exchange.
After that initial conversation, McKenstry said they learned that the man lacked stable housing and wanted to provide for his family, including a daughter.
For so many of the men he meets, such instability is the biggest barrier to staying away from crime, McKenstry said.
“It was like, ‘if I have got to risk it all to make my way, then I will do that,’” he said. “The program was able to give him the stability he needs.”
City officials declined to name the man or make him available for an interview.
The city has attempted past violence deterrence programs, but they relied more heavily on police wielding threats, and less on the incentives. They also did not recruit community leaders, such as McKenstry, to make those initial outreach attempts.
McKenstry and Kelly said the young men are inclined to listen to them because they have lived through similar challenges.
“I have hustled and sold drugs on the street,” Kelly said. “No one wants to go to work every day and risk being arrested or being shot and killed.”
Their job, Kelly said, “becomes leveraging our integrity so they can know this is a viable opportunity to actually change. Everyone wants the opportunity. No one wants to be on the corner every day.”
Relying on law enforcement is a last resort for the program, said Shantay Jackson, the director of MONSE. Individuals who are identified in active investigations will be visited by law enforcement who will try to discourage further violence. Others, who aren’t facing possible arrest, are approached in a more compassionate manner.
She recalled the outreach for a young man whose brother was killed.
“There was some intelligence that this person was seriously thinking about retaliation, and we used the fact they were under parole and probation supervision to compel them to come,” she said. “It wasn’t, ‘Hey, let’s talk about the opportunity’ first, it was, ‘Man, we heard this was your brother.’”
Kelly recalled how five or six people went to talk to the man at the initial meeting.
“He was grieving. We had to humanize him,” Kelly said.
“‘We had to check on you,’” he recalled telling the man. “It was about, we know this is rough. All of us have been through this. What can we do to help you?”
Then, they were able to talk to the man about other supports, like counseling, working toward obtaining a commercial driver’s license, and helping out his child.
Jackson said officers who are involved also receive special training. She said a law enforcement approach is the last resort.
McKenstry and Kelly said they believe the program is showing early success because it has been effective in addressing the participants’ immediate needs.
McKenstry recalled another man they helped. He had been visiting his child’s mother, who lived in the Western District, and got shot. Because the man was shot near his girlfriend’s home, she was forced to leave.
“A violent act perpetrated on him caused her to be immediately evicted from where she lived,” McKenstry explained.
But through the GVRS program, he was able to help the family relocate and find housing quickly.
“This program came and helped pick up the pieces,” he said.
Jackson said the GVRS has resources from across the city it can use, including city housing and other agencies MONSE has relationships with.
Jackson said she regularly works with other city agencies to help GVRS participants.
“Another gunshot can ring out in a heartbeat,” she said. “We are looking to always move as expeditiously as possible when we hear situations like this.”
“It could be a person has already been shot and we don’t want them to retaliate or to be re-victimized, or for their family members to retaliate,” Jackson said. “Or that this person is potentially someone, through the intel we’ve gotten, either community-based intelligence or BPD-based intelligence, that we believe they might be about to get shot.”
Ultimately, Jackson, Kelly and McKenstry say the program will succeed as its reputation spreads.
“The goal is to normalize this type of work,” Kelly said. “Whereas now, we expect people to be skeptical of it.”