A man who spent nearly two decades in prison for a murder he committed as a teenager is now on a mission in one of West Baltimore's most violent neighborhoods.
Corey Winfield, 46, and nine other counselors have opened a Safe Streets office in Sandtown-Winchester, in an old Roman Catholic convent the nuns left in the 1990s. Their goal: Stop the shootings.
Safe Streets is a program that uses ex-offenders and other men to counsel youths against violence. The office in Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood that received national attention after the death of Freddie Gray, is the city's fifth and largest.
"Most of us come from this environment. We understand the body language," said Imhotep Fatiu, the Sandtown-Winchester office director.
They will walk the streets at night to spot rivalries, then counsel young men against violence, Fatiu said.
City officials praised their success in other neighborhoods during an opening party Thursday afternoon.
In 2014, Safe Streets counselors mediated 880 conflicts, said Dr. Leana Wen, the city's health commissioner. More than 80 percent of those conflicts were believed likely to end with a shooting, she said.
Last year, five people were shot and killed in the blocks served by the new Safe Streets office, officials said. Twelve people were shot and survived in the area last year. With 344 homicides, 2015 was the deadliest year per capita in Baltimore history.
"Violence is a public-health issue," Wen said. "Violence spreads from person to person, just like other diseases."
Violent crime has plunged by 50 percent in neighborhoods served by other Safe Streets offices: Cherry Hill, McElderry Park, Mondawmin and Park Heights, said Bill McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities. Catholic Charities, the Abell Foundation, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Annie E. Casey Foundation funded the first year of the new office with about a half-million dollars.
Safe Streets, however, has struggled to maintain its image as neighborhood peacekeepers. Last year, a police raid turned up drugs and guns at the Safe Streets office in McElderry Park. Prosecutors dropped all charges this month.
"Our responsibility is to closely monitor the program and ensure it stays on the right track," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Thursday.
Winfield said he previously worked in the program's McElderry Park office. He recalled a time several years ago when tensions were escalating there. Some rival young men were shooting at every encounter. If only the rivals could meet somewhere and talk, he thought.
So he took them somewhere they wouldn't dare fight — and it worked.
They resolved their grudge at a Chuck E. Cheese crowded with children.