IRVING PARK — When gun violence increased in some North and Northwest side neighborhoods last year, officials and residents pushed for a two-fold solution: more police in the short term and community-based interventions to keep everyone safer in the long term.
Almost a year later, some Irving Park residents got their first look at the longer-term plan this week, meeting violence interrupters who have worked the area for months, trying to quell gang-related conflicts and support at-risk locals.
On Tuesday, violence interrupters from the Alliance of Local Service Organizations joined a block party hosted by Irving Park East Neighborhood Association, sharing pizza and s’mores while the outreach team introduced themselves and talked to neighbors about their concerns.
“I’m a firm believer of not just showing up when an incident like a shooting happens,” said Samuel Santana, who oversees outreach teams in Belmont Cragin, Avondale and Albany Park. “It doesn’t have to be a violent problem for us to help; it could be anything. And we’re not just here to fix a problem and leave — we’re part of this community, too.”
The outreach workers are gaining a foothold in the neighborhoods as city leaders furiously debate how to reduce violent crime throughout Chicago.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has proposed boosting the Police Department budget by almost $200 million for 2022, but some local organizers said they need more buy-in for alternative strategies.
The violence interrupters working in Irving Park and Albany Park are funded through Cook County, not the city.
“I think what we’ve been doing over the last seven decades in terms of budgets around policing has brought us to this point,” said Marjorie Allabastro, a member of the Irving Park East Neighborhood Association. “We believe in the value of the Police Department and what they can do. But we also believe in using all the resources available to us, using every possible tool in the tool in the toolbox to help curb the stem of violence we’re seeing to help meet the communities needs.”
In the 17th District that polices the area, murders are down 70 percent, and robberies, aggravated batteries and vehicle thefts have also fallen — but thefts, burglaries and sexual assaults have risen or remained about the same, according to police data.
The area also reported 35 shootings involving a victim as of Friday. That’s higher than over the same time period in 2019, when there were 15 shootings reported, but lower than in 2020, when there were 46 shootings reported by Oct. 8.
While police data shows murders trending down in the area, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) said it is not the time to be less vigilant.
“One of the discussions we’re having right now is that the money for violence prevention, which we need to seriously invest in, needs to take into consideration pockets of the city that are not usually looked at because the data shows a low incidence of crime,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “We need to make sure we’re still investing in those neighborhoods because we’ve seen what can happen when you don’t — there are spikes.”
‘You Have To Go To Them’
The violence interrupters for Albany Park and Irving Park were announced in 2020 as a collaboration between ALSO and Metropolitan Family Services. The program is funded by a $5 million violence reduction investment from Cook County. The effort has no city funding this year.
The organizations recruit community members with backgrounds similar to people most at risk for violence. Once those messengers are identified, vetted and trained, they can build community relationships and help dissuade people from resorting to violence, understand why shootings happened and attempt to prevent retaliatory violence.
ALSO has conducted outreach efforts in Humboldt Park since 2008, said Jorge Matos, the group’s director of safe streets. He spoke to Block Club in March when the initiative was seeking out people like Santana to build its outreach team for the Albany Park area.
“It takes time to expand into a new community. This is not the kind of work that you just pop up, hire just anyone and then get into the community and stop the violence overnight,” Matos said. “It takes time to build relationships with neighbors and those at the highest risk for violence.”
One of the biggest challenges ALSO’s outreach workers face is the neighbors most at risk for being involved in violence are often distrustful of police, elected officials, neighborhood associations and even nonprofits like ALSO.
Street outreach workers like Santana, who can speak from personal experiences with violence, are uniquely qualified to be a “credible messenger” for at-risk neighbors in a way other groups aren’t, Matos said.
“And what’s crucial is that our team are out there driving around and out in the streets, building these relationships on the spot,” Matos said. “The people most at risk aren’t going to come to your door with a resume asking for help; you have to go to them.”
Santana grew up in Irving Park and served more than 18 years in prison for selling drugs.
After Santana’s release in 2014, he considered returning to drug dealing because that’s all he knew, he said. But a friend convinced him to join him in the violence intervention efforts at Mount Sinai Hospital’s emergency room.
“I didn’t want to work with my friend at the hospital at first because I thought no one listens to those guys,” Santana said. “But when I went, it made me see life differently. I lost my brother to the streets. And when I saw a mother crying for her dead son in the ER, her crying opened up my eyes. I started thinking of my own mother. What I put her through and what she went through when my brother died. It just made me feel different, and I wanted to do the work more and more.”
Santana worked at Mount Sinai for five years before switching to street outreach to prevent the violence he saw at the hospital. Finding ways to connect community members to resources, like shoveling sidewalks after snowstorms, are “little things” that add up to a more connected community and reduces violence down the road.
“Letting people know we’re all the same, even if we live on different blocks or are from different communities, that we’ve got the same problems and can count on each other,” Santana said.
‘We Know That This Works’
Alderpeople who have pushed to reduce communities’ reliance on police — including Rodriguez-Sanchez — say there is still an uphill battle.
After Rodriguez-Sanchez was elected, she spoke with Susan Lee, former deputy mayor of public safety, about the city investing in violence intervention efforts in Albany Park, she said.
“After those conversations in 2019, no city funding came to the Northwest Side. And now we have a crisis,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said.
Lee has since resigned and now works for Chicago CRED, a privately funded gun violence reduction group. Lightfoot’s most recent budget proposal sets aside $135 million for violence prevention initiatives compared to $1.9 billion for the Police Department.
Ald. Matt Martin (47th) also has supported alternative strategies to reduce policing while tackling crime. His area had fewer shootings compared to many parts of the city, but there have been three separate shootings, one fatal, in his ward since Sunday. His office is hosting a community meeting with police next week to address neighbors’ concerns.
“One thing we’ve seen over the last number of years is the uptick in certain types of violent crime, including and not limited to shootings and carjackings, is that we’re asking officers to respond to too much,” Martin said.
Gun violence-prevention analysis from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago shows the work of many of these street outreach initiatives can have a tremendous positive impact on reducing a community’s risk of gun violence, Martin said.
“We know that this works. We need to scale it up but do it in a thoughtful way so it’s tailored to the needs of individual communities where tensions and gun crime are increasing,” Martin said.
The city has a unique opportunity to use federal COVID-19 relief money to help people facing an increase in gun violence connect with groups like ALSO, Martin said.
“Hopefully, that’s something that collectively we can agree to do, because that’s what folks need. And that’s what folks expect us to do with these federal funds,” he said.
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