Advocates rally for Baltimore Safe Streets program after funding cut

Communities rally for Safe Streets in light of governor's decision to cut funding.

Around 50 community members, city officials and Safe Streets employees gathered in Sandtown-Winchester Thursday afternoon to voice concerns about a proposed budget cut to a city violence prevention program.

The rally formed the day after Gov. Larry Hogan's budget chief said the governor would not spend $80 million authorized by the General Assembly for violence prevention, school renovation and other programs. The $1 million lawmakers allocated to fund Safe Streets was included in the cut.

On the streets where the program is implemented, conversations moved from fiscal to emotional realities. Violence will increase if the program disappears, people said.

"This ain't about money," said Safe Streets outreach worker Walter Outlaw, tears streaming down his face. "My life is on the line. … Tomorrow, I don't know if it's my last day."

Safe Streets is a Baltimore health department program that uses released felons or ex-gang members as outreach workers to intervene in situations that could lead to violence.

The outreach workers often come from or know the communities where they work, which builds local trust.

The program has five neighborhood sites — Cherry Hill, McElderry Park, Mondawmin, Park Heights and Sandtown-Winchester.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen on Thursday called for Hogan to meet Safe Streets workers. The research showing the program's effectiveness should speak for itself — Safe Streets saves lives, she said.

"You can't put a dollar amount on that," Wen said. "We know that this is an effective program, that's the crazy thing."

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said administration officials have already been in touch with Wen and will continue to work with her.

He declined to say whether the governor would meet with her personally. He added that the Hogan administration has already funded $20 million in programs designed to reduce violence in Baltimore and to make the city a safer place.

Sean Naron, a health department spokesman, said the program has a $1.1 million budget. Around 40 people would lose their jobs and most sites would shut down by the end of 2016 without any additional funding.

Hogan will not reverse himself on the spending package, Mayer said.

"The governor made his announcement [Wednesday] and that's not going to change," he said.

The Republican Hogan administration and Democratic leadership of the legislature have blamed each other for the loss of funding for Safe Streets and other programs covered under the $80 million Hogan declined to spend.

The rally was held outside the program's newest site in Sandtown-Winchester, which opened in 2015. Those in attendance wore black, gray and orange T-shirts reading "Stop Shooting. Start Living." William Kellibrew IV, director of the Office of Youth Violence Prevention, led the group in chants of "Save Safe Streets."

Violence in Baltimore is an emergency and aid should come as swiftly as it did to victims of the flood in Ellicott City, said Minister Cleoda Walker of Cherry Hill Community Presbyterian Church.

"We have storms and floods in our community," she said. "It's not rain, but it's blood."

Safe Streets employees voiced frustration that the program has to fight for funding, instead of focusing on preventing violence.

The program mediated 880 situations in 2014 that likely would have led to shooting, said Gardnel Carter, East Side program director.

"That was 880 people who didn't have to visit Shock Trauma," he said. "That is cost effectiveness."

The program remains controversial because it involves ex-offenders, Carter said. He said those who want to end the program focus on single events, such as when the discovery of guns and drugs in July 2015 shut down the East Side location for a month. No one is calling to de-fund the Baltimore police department after officer Wesley Cagle was found guilty of first-degree assault, he said.

The health department will continue to advocate for the program's funding, but is looking into other funding streams from city, federal and private sources, Wen said.

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