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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

On The West Side, Violence Interrupters Have A New Message: Wash Your Hands

"We already had an epidemic called violence," Perez said. "But now we have another epidemic that is disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities."

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NORTH LAWNDALE — Chicago is flattening the curve, but as the social distancing orders wear on, the city and state have struggled to encourage participation among residents who are low-income and Black, the same population that is most vulnerable to the infection and has made up the bulk of fatalities.

West Side social service agency UCAN says people are willing to take the social distancing advice — given that it comes from somebody they know and trust.

According to Frank Perez, the director of violence intervention and prevention services at UCAN, street outreach workers are some of the people best positioned to help spread the social distancing gospel among disenfranchised communities that have little faith in public officials. Those workers would typically intervene in crime hotspots on the West Side to de-escalate conflicts before they resort to violence, and to prompt reconciliation and prevent retaliation when violence does occur.

“We already had an epidemic called violence,” Perez said. “But now we have another epidemic that is disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities.”

Young adults on the streets listen to violence interrupters because they are credible messengers, Perez said, people born and raised in the neighborhood, many of whom were once involved in gangs and know what it’s like to be caught up in a cycle of violence, poverty and incarceration. That makes them uniquely positioned to create peace in the community — and to teach people how to protect themselves from the epidemic.

The violence interrupters know from experience that it takes a lot of privilege to follow some of the guidelines recommended by health officials, Perez said. Many West Siders live in small apartments crowded with several other people and lack the amenities to make staying at home a practical option.

So Perez’s team of outreach workers are trained to give practical advice that reflects the experiences of people in the hardest-hit communities. And when it comes to people hustling on the streets, dealing, gambling, or selling loose cigarettes, their advice is helping people to take small steps that can keep them safer.

“We’re giving them real life tips. Don’t pass around that 40oz, don’t pass around that blunt that you’re all toking on,” he said.

In addition to spreading the word at crime hotspots about handwashing and staying at home, the outreach team has also been connecting people in the neighborhood with resources they need to make it through the health emergency. Outreach workers have been canvassing door to door passing out flyers with health recommendations and information on social services available to them through the city and through UCAN’s caseworkers, who can help residents access food, employment opportunities and health services. If they had enough supplies, they would also be passing out masks and hand sanitizer, Perez said.

Perez said the best way to change somebody’s mindset, whether to break the cycle of violence or to take the pandemic seriously, is to offer them something useful to nudge them along.

“That goes a long way in reinforcing the relationship and showing them that you really care,” he said.

Violence interrupter Reginald Woods said people are willing to learn more about COVID-19 and how it affects communities on the West Side, but they sometimes don’t trust city officials when their neighborhood has been left behind for so long.

“We can definitely give a better outlook on what’s going on in our community. Coming from us as credible people to them, they understand it better. Everybody don’t listen to the news. Everybody don’t listen to the police,” Woods said.

According to Woods, it took a few weeks to gain traction but now the outreach workers are making a significant impact among people that had yet to be reached by the city’s engagement efforts. People are taking the social distancing order more seriously now, even asking Woods and other violence interruptors for help getting hand sanitizer and masks.

UCAN is supplying outreach workers with personal protective equipment, but does not have enough to distribute through the streets and is accepting donations. Those interested in donating masks and other PPE to help the outreach workers distribute them can reach out to Claude Robinson at

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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