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Cure Violence leaders push for expansion across St. Louis area as anti-violence program still rolling out

Cure Violence leaders push for expansion across St. Louis area as anti-violence program still rolling out

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ST. LOUIS — City officials should expand the violence reduction program known as Cure Violence to more neighborhoods — even before its first three centers have fully launched, leaders of the program said Saturday during a panel discussion on the program’s progress.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved $7 million last fall to fund Cure Violence centers in three high-crime areas for three years. Nonprofit Employment Connection of St. Louis won a contract to run two of the neighborhood efforts — one in the Wells-Goodfellow and Hamilton Heights area and the other in Dutchtown. The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis will run the third center in Walnut Park.

The Chicago-based program has launched in cities around the world including Baltimore, Milwaukee and New York City. It treats violence like a contagious disease by attempting to prevent its spread in high-crime neighborhoods. It works through a staff of “violence interrupters,” people with close ties to the neighborhoods where they work, who are hired to try to divert residents from violence through employment, counseling and other aid.

The St. Louis neighborhoods picked for the first three Cure Violence centers accounted for about 28% of the city’s homicides in 2019, but made up just 10% of the population, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of police data.

So far, one out of the three has fully launched, despite Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office initially aiming to have all three operating by Aug. 1 this year.

Nevertheless, leaders of the program speaking Saturday at the annual Violence Prevention Summit sponsored by the North Newstead Association said Cure Violence’s effect on crime in the region would be greatly increased if it could expand to more areas.

“It’s like taking a sponge and trying to absorb a sink full of water,” said James Clark, who heads the fledgling Urban League Cure Violence program in Walnut Park. Clark said he is confident the program will show positive results when it is fully operational. “We are going to absorb some of the crime and violence, but we are only in three neighborhoods.”

Read our report on gun violence in Missouri.

Clark said he thinks Cure Violence is needed in at least 12 St. Louis neighborhoods as well as six areas in St. Louis County and five across the Mississippi River in the Metro East. He added there has been some interest from private sources, like corporations, in funding the program’s expansion.

Sal Martinez, chief executive officer of Employment Connection, which runs the other two centers, agreed. Martinez said crime is often interconnected among neighborhoods, so with more centers, interrupters could work together when violence crosses neighborhood lines.

For now, the three programs are each designed to have a team that focuses on a 10-square-block area, based on where violent crimes are happening most often, Martinez said.

Staff members go to shooting scenes to try to dissuade retaliation. Each has a caseload of 15 “high-risk” people they try to steer away from violence. Those considered high-risk are typically between ages 16 and 25 and may have recently been shot or have had a relative who was shot; are known to carry guns; recently left prison or are engaged with high-risk groups or activities, Martinez said.

One center launched

The city’s first Cure Violence site in Wells-Goodfellow and Hamilton Heights launched in June.

Martinez said the first team of staff includes several people who have been shot themselves or have served prison time. That can give them added credibility and shared experiences to be effective with those they help.

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the program’s start. Cure Violence has not publicly released data on the efficacy of its work.

According to police data, however, homicides are down in Wells-Goodfellow so far this year. From January through October, the neighborhood had eight homicides compared with 14 in that period a year before. Total aggravated assaults with a weapon remained about the same between the two years.

In Hamilton Heights, the other neighborhood the center touches, homicide was up significantly through October this year: 12 in 2020 compared with 4 in 2019. Aggravated assaults held steady in that time.

Across the city, homicides and aggravated assaults have risen significantly, in line with trends seen in large cities nationwide following COVID-19 shut downs this spring.

In St. Louis, homicides are up about 33% and aggravated assaults rose by 8% compared with last year. Property crime has fallen this year.

Two centers to come

The Dutchtown center for Cure Violence fell short of the city’s goal of getting it running by August.

Martinez said finding people who meet the program’s standards and are willing to work late hours has been difficult. Violence interrupters work 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 3 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

So far, about half the staff has been hired, Martinez said. The center has opened in a building that houses other area nonprofits, the Neighborhood Innovation Center at 3207 Meramec Street.

Martinez continues to search for people willing to do the work: “This is not a desk job. Our cure violence staff don’t have the luxury of sitting in a cozy office,” he said. “They are expected to be out in the community 70 or 80% of the time.”

The Walnut Park location, run by the Urban League, now has a staff of 12 hired, but they need to be trained, Clark said Saturday.

Clark is confident that the model will work.

“I bet my life on it, that we will get positive outcomes,” he said.

Erin Heffernan • 314-340-8145 @erinheff on Twitter eheffernan@post-dispatch.com

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