By Elizabeth Perry
Over the next five years, Focus on Renewal will use a $10 million grant issued through the Allegheny County Department of Human Services to fund three programs; one to help at-risk men gain skills and find work, another to teach at-risk boys social skills, and a project to employ “interrupters” to de-escalate violent situations within the community.
“My hope for the program is for others like myself, who have had direct gun violence not just take away a loved one but also almost destroyed our lives, would have the support they need. Yet, another hope is that there is an overall reduction in the crime rate in the region,” said Danielle Davis, Ph.D., the training and development consultant for Davis Consulting Solutions.
Statistics listed in the grant proposal are shocking: Children’s IQ test scores fell a half standard deviation below average within a week of a local murder, each gun fatality costs taxpayers $270,399 and each nonfatal gun injury costs taxpayers $52,585 in medical bills, police costs and criminal justice fees. In addition, exposure to gun violence is “linked to higher risk of suicidal ideation and psychotic experience and higher levels of depression and distress.”
FOR has obtained an additional $833,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The collaboration with Steel City Impact, FOR and the Sto-Rox School District will deliver arts instruction through after-school programs.
Cynthia Haines, executive director for FOR, said the organization is a “quarterback agency under the umbrella of DHS” on the grant, which means they’ll be taking the lead in setting up the anti-violence programs which will be developed. Members of the Grow Sto-Rox initiative will assist in implementation.
Two of the three programs are targeted at young, Black men. According to the Community Violence Reduction Plan proposal that segment makes up the majority of offenders; 70% of homicide offenders over the last decade in Allegheny County were between the ages of 19 and 34, with 78% of all offenders being Black males. Black Pennsylvanians are 21 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than any other segment of the population, according to Cease Fire PA.
Locally, the majority of murder victims in the past few years were Black men. There were 13 murders in McKees Rocks between 2019-2022, with the worst year being 2021 with six murders according to Allegheny County data. In Stowe, there were a dozen murders in that time frame, with 2021 also proving to be the worst year with five. In McKees Rocks, 10 of those victims were Black and in Stowe seven were Black. Of those, eight and five were men, respectively.
Haines said the Sto-Rox program will be based on READI Chicago, which stands for the Rapid Employment and Development Initiative. The Sto-Rox program will provide opportunities to help men who are prone to, or likely to become victims of violence.
Participants will have access to mental health resources, education and transitional paid employment opportunities. The program will be based within the Community Resource Center on Chartiers Avenue in McKees Rocks.
“Our target population is 25 men, five or six to kick it off,” Haines said.
Participants in the program will participate in morning cognitive behavioral therapy and job training, then they will spend afternoons working in a transitional position.
Haines said they will have a “place where they can grow their potential.”
“It could literally be someone coming out of incarceration, someone looking to make themselves whole in the community,” Haines said.
Davis Consulting will be subcontracted to do job coaching and on-site job supervision while FOR handles the clinical aspect of the program, Haines said.
Outreach for the program should begin in August, Haines said, and will require three FOR employees, two employees through Davis Consulting and an additional CRC employee.
Davis Consulting Solutions was founded by Davis in 2011.
“As a mother of two, determined to overcome the effects of generational poverty, gun violence, addiction, and single parenting through education, professional development, and wealth building,” Davis said via email.
The READI Chicago program has a documented history of success. Men enrolled in the program had 63% fewer arrests for shootings and homicides and 19% fewer victimizations. People referred through community programs experienced the best outcomes, with 79% fewer arrests and 47% fewer victimizations for shootings and homicides, according to READI Chicago.
“Sto-Rox is benefiting from someone else having the blueprint,” Haines said.
Sheri Ruffai, director of strategic partnerships and technical assistance for READI Chicago is collaborating with the Sto-Rox team. Ruffai said the Chicago program began in 2017 in response to a state-wide spike in violence.
They’re planning to use an 18-month model in Allegheny County, with 12 months of work for participants and six months of wraparound follow-up.
Participants in Chicago would take part in “low barrier transitional work,” which meant they would clean up litter, work in hospitality or agriculture – all fields that didn’t require a great deal of training beforehand.
Right now, Ruffai said the team is hiring the right staff in Stowe and McKees Rocks to implement the program and getting them trained.
“We plan to launch the program in the fall of 2023,” Ruffai said.
Cure Violence Global
Cure Violence is an international program that aims to reduce violence by treating it the same way disease outbreaks are treated.
Violence ripples out from the perpetrator and victims toward everyone in a community, Haines said.
“You want to stop like in a public health mode,” Haines said.
The program has reduced shootings by 30% in Philadelphia, 63% in New York City, and a whopping 94% in San Pedro, Sula, Honduras, according to the organization.
They do this by detecting and interrupting potentially violent situations before they can erupt in conflict, identifying “high-risk” people and getting them help with mental health services, jobs or addiction counseling, and finally they “mobilize the community to change norms.”
Communities in Schools, Pittsburgh Allegheny County, or CISPAC is currently hiring four people to become interrupters. Currently, there is a new program in the Sto-Rox School District called Violence Intervention Building Empowerment, or VIBE, which was funded by a separate grant, that utilizes three people in the high school trained to mediate in potentially violent situations.
FOR will put interrupters through extensive training in conflict resolution. Haines said candidates will not be required to have a college degree, but they will need a high degree of street credibility within the community.
“Lived experience is important,” Haines said.
The third program is called Becoming A Man, which is going to be implemented at Sto-Rox High School. Two local counselors will be hired to help within the school, as well as a regional director for Allegheny County, Haines said.
BAM will begin during the next academic school year. Superintendent Megan Van Fossan is going to Boston for a site visit to see how an existing program operates.
“Other staff members will head to Chicago to become more immersed in BAM’s programming-all at no cost to the district. We look forward to working with BAM for the betterment of our students,” said Dan Rinkus, communication specialist for Sto-Rox School District.
The key tenants of the program, which was initiated in 2001 in Chicago, are integrity, accountability, self-determination, respect for womanhood, visionary goal-setting and positive anger expression, according to the BAM website.
The program will be aimed at boys in grades 7-12 who have been “exposed to traumatic stressors and face social, behavioral, cognitive or emotional challenges.”
Haines said hiring for all three programs will be conducted by a team of individuals from DHS, people involved with each of the model programs and FOR.
Jobs associated with each program have been posted on Vibrant Pittsburgh Job Board and the FOR website.
Haines said they are seeking local hires for all positions.
Overall, the $10 million grant is just a small slice of a greater anti-violence initiative. Allegheny County DHS has allotted $50 million over five years for anti-violence programs for the Penn Hills School District, South Pittsburgh Coalition for Peace in South Hilltop and Mount Oliver, Greater Valley Community Services in Woodland Hills School District, Steel Rivers Council of Governments in the Mon Valley and Community Forge in the Greater Wilkinsburg Area, according to a press release from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
“There’s a lot going on, it’s just that it’s all at the very beginning,” Haines said.