Change to St. Louis’ community violence intervention program raises eyes in Dutchtown
A decision by the city of St. Louis to make changes to its community violence intervention programs is raising questions in one of the affected neighborhoods.
The Office of Violence Prevention, which oversees the program, announced last week that it chose Live Free USA, a faith-based organization in Oakland, to help train the people who go out into neighborhoods and intervene in conflicts before they turn violent.
Mission: St. Louis, a nonprofit based in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood, will hire those doing the intervention work. Under the program’s model, they should be people from the the three neighborhoods where the program has been implemented; Wells-Goodfellow, Walnut Park and Dutchtown.
“The work is community violence intervention, and that work doesn’t change,” said Wil Pinkney, the director of the OVP.
Cure Violence Global, based in Chicago, previously provided the technical support. The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis hired the interrupters, as they are known, in Walnut Park, while Employment Connections did the same in Dutchtown and Wells-Goodfellow. None of those organizations responded to a request for comment.
Work by University of Missouri - St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld had raised questions about the drops in crime the city had attributed to Cure Violence. But Pinkney said the change in providers had nothing to do with the effectiveness of the work.
“I think that's disrespectful to the people that were putting their lives on the line every day to do the work,” he said. “We just are having an opportunity to sort of revisit and re-polish and make sure that we're doing the work in the best way we can.”
Josh Wilson, the founder and executive director of Mission: St. Louis, said he was looking forward to getting started and building on the work the organization is already doing in the community.
“We're excited to be able to love and care for staff that are going to be laying their life down to make sure that this city is loved and cared for,” he said. “It's what we're built for.”
Michael McBride, the head of Live Free USA, said he still had a number of connections in St. Louis from his days on the ground after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson nine years ago.
“They asked us for help and we never left,” he said. “We have the ability to help St. Louis become a more safe city.”
But the seemingly abrupt change in providers generated some concern in Dutchtown, in south St. Louis.
Nate Lucena, a Dutchtown resident, member of the board of Dutchtown Main Streets board and the owner of Wildfruit Project, an art gallery in the neighborhood, said he first heard that the city was going with new providers while attending the Marquette Community Day on Aug. 6.
“There were just some conversations there about, ‘oh, you know, there is going to be a change in this service provider,’” he said. “We didn’t really know any details there.”
Lucena said he and the Dutchtown community have no concerns about the new providers themselves, but wish they had gotten more information sooner about the changes.
Jarel Williams, who worked as an interrupter in Dutchtown until the contract with Employment Connections expired June 30, said he had also heard the same complaint. Intervention work requires trust, he said.
“They’re so used to the people who have already been doing it, it’s difficult for them to accept a new face and having to do it, like all over again.”
Pinkney said those who worked for the previous contractors will be able to apply for jobs with Mission: St. Louis, but the positions are not guaranteed. Williams said he has relationships with people at the new organization, and “if they called, I would go.”
The $2.08 million contract with Mission: St. Louis and Live Free USA will last for a year, but can be renewed. Funding is coming from American Rescue Plan Act funds; it previously came from the city’s general revenue budget.
Pinkney said the change in funding sources required the city to issue a new request for proposals.
Correction: A previous St. Louis Public Radio report misspelled the last name of Nate Lucena.