The Baltimore group that steers kids off the streets – one person at a time

Jamal West embraces a Roca client before departing. The two finished a long conversation about helping the young man obtain a driver’s license.
Jamal West embraces a Roca client before departing. The two finished a long conversation about helping the young man obtain a driver’s license. Photograph: Shan Wallace
Jamal West embraces a Roca client before departing. The two finished a long conversation about helping the young man obtain a driver’s license. Photograph: Shan Wallace

It can take time to convince Roca’s clients to leave illegal money-making behind. So the organization approaches violence interruption as a long game

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J Brian Charles for The Trace in Baltimore

Last modified on Thu 10 Jun 2021 11.17 EDT

This story was originally published by The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering gun violence in America. Sign up for its newsletters here.

The game of cat and mouse had played out for months on the corners of West Baltimore. Jamal West would pull up in his minivan. Miayan, 18 years old at the time, would run. The 46-year-old West stands at 6ft 4in and is built like an NFL lineman – no match for the wiry teenager in a footrace. So West would come back in his van the next day. And when Miayan saw the van, he would flee again.

All West wanted was to talk to Miayan. This was in early 2019, not long after Roca, a violence prevention program, launched in Baltimore.

“I was running the streets,” Miayan said. “Running the streets, getting into everything I could.”

Miayan was working corners, selling drugs, often making more than $700 each week. His crew earned enough from drug sales that they became the target of law enforcement. And just like he did when he saw West’s minivan, when the cops came, Miayan ran. Most times Miayan won that footrace. (The Trace and the Hunturdeals are not using his full name, or that of other young people, because many of their offenses occurred when they were minors.)

What Miayan had in speed, West surpassed in persistence. West, Roca’s youth work supervisor, kept coming back, sometimes with his partner, Teshombae Harvell. They hoped to begin the therapy needed to unpack the experiences that weighed on Miayan. He grew up watching family members struggle with drug addiction and get drawn into the drug trade only to be snatched away by the criminal justice system. For his 20 years, Miayan had seen arguments turn violent, violence turn deadly, and friends’ lives cut short. Not much to hope for.

Miayan ran from Roca workers for months before an almost deadly fall put him in a coma and convinced him to work with the program on dealing with his trauma.
Miayan ran from Roca workers for months before an almost deadly fall put him in a coma and convinced him to work with the program on dealing with his trauma. Photograph: Shan Wallace

West, Harvell and Roca needed time with Miayan to make sure he didn’t end up like so many teenage boys and young men in his neighborhood. But each day Miayan was drawn deeper into danger.

West knew the teenager’s past: Miayan had been raised mostly by his grandmother; he lived in Sandtown-Winchester, a place where more than half the children face poverty, and where police tackled and arrested Freddie Gray before he died in their custody. Miayan grew up an athlete, excelling in football and basketball. When getting Miayan to practice became untenable, those quick feet got put to work elsewhere.

Roca’s clients, Miayan included, are often caught between the underground and legal economies. It can take time to convince them to leave illegal money-making behind. And bad things happen during that window.

In the last 15 years, 16- to 25-year-olds accounted for the largest share of Baltimore’s fatal shooting victims. Roca is part a public health response to violence within this age group, an approach that isn’t new nationally or in Baltimore. The program targets 16- to 24-year-olds, mostly males like Miayan, who have had at least brushes with the criminal justice system, and are likely to be either a perpetrator or a victim of gun violence.

Roca approaches violence interruption as a long game. Through cognitive behavioral therapy, the program tries to help people manage their trauma and regulate their responses to stress and conflict. It’s not a prevention program, as the staff points out, but an intervention program that can take up to four years to yield results. “If we can … teach them how to manage conflict by the age of 20, we’re setting the city up for success one young person at a time,” said James Timpson, who runs Roca-Baltimore’s community collaborations.

For Roca, time cuts both ways. There is the amount of time it takes to transform a young person, and there is an urgency to be in contact with them at all times, the fear of missing even one phone call. It’s why West took calls from Roca participants during a recent vacation to Jamaica. “It can put a strain on your personal life, but we have to be there,” West said.

But like any response to Baltimore’s violence crisis, Roca faces daunting challenges. There are the perverse economic incentives the clients contend with: earning $1,000 a week in the underground economy can be more appealing than a job making $15 an hour. Community-based violence prevention programs aren’t designed to upend harsh economic realities, but over time, staffers try to appeal to clients’ values as an incentive to change, a philosophy that animates Joe Biden’s big bet on community-based violence prevention. If people value their freedom, and their family, then carrying a gun might rob them of both.

Jamal West shakes hands with one of his clients, a young man who deals drugs on a corner in West Baltimore.
Jamal West shakes hands with one of his clients, a young man who deals drugs on a corner in West Baltimore. Photograph: Shan Wallace

By their late teens, many of the boys and young men across Baltimore are carrying trauma. The heft doesn’t slow their run from authorities, or Roca workers, but it clouds their decision making. For Miayan, life centered around the day, the moment. He woke up thinking about survival. “I got to go outside and make some money, so I’ll eat today and stuff like that,” he remembered thinking.

He also needed to support a painkiller habit he developed in his teens. On the days, and there were a few, when West and Harvell tracked Miayan down, he didn’t want to hear what they had to say about decision making, or leaving the block behind. He wasn’t ready.

On Mother’s Day 2019, it looked like the time Miayan needed was about to run out. For all his skill, his run in the early morning of 5 May 2019 was his last escape from the cops. One misplaced step cost him his balance. Gravity did the rest. Miayan’s head hit the ground with enough force to put him in a coma, leaving him temporarily paralyzed. His grandmother sat by his bedside every day, holding his hand and praying. “I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be,” Deborah Moore said.

West joined her sentry at his bed. For two months, he checked in on Miayan at the hospital. It was just Miayan, his grandmother and West – not his crew. Only then, fresh out of a coma, temporarily paralyzed, did Miayan decide to give Roca a real chance, beginning the conversation that West wanted to start in early 2019. He began working through the trauma with West in that hospital room and at the physical therapy sessions where Miayan learned how to walk again.

The same year Miayan fell, the year he turned 18, was the deadliest in Baltimore’s history. By the end of 2019, 348 people were killed. The killings fell heavily on young people. More than one-third of homicide victims were between the ages of 16 and 25 in that year.

The long game of violence reduction

Roca means “rock” in Spanish. The organization was born in Massachusetts in the late 1980s, as a way to treat the challenges endured by young people struggling with poverty, violence and limited job opportunities.

“These young people that are in these environments, have been placed in situations out of their control at a very young age, but they do have the ability to learn the skills to not react,” said Kurt Palmero, the director of Roca-Baltimore. “But they’re not just going to flip a switch and have it happen [immediately].”

Roca dispatches youth interventionists like West and Harvell in much the way Safe Streets, a prominent violence prevention organization, sends credible messengers to defuse conflicts. But rather than just addressing the flashpoint, Roca youth workers spend time with each one of the young men and women referred to the program to teach them how to process their feelings in a way that doesn’t turn violent or keeps them away from places where they are exposed to violence.

It’s usually police, the carceral system or social services agencies that refer youth to the program. Poor behavior, or as was the case with Miayan, reluctance to participate, doesn’t disqualify them. And while that may not seem like an efficient way to address root causes of violence, Roca’s staff believes its long-term approach is the best way to reduce conflicts in a city where slights can turn deadly.

Teshombae Harvell embraces one of the Roca clients he has spent months working with in East Baltimore.
Teshombae Harvell embraces one of the Roca clients he has spent months working with in East Baltimore. Photograph: Shan Wallace

Molly Baldwin, who founded Roca in Massachusetts, brought the program to Baltimore in 2018. The city was about to record 300-plus homicides for the fourth consecutive year. Patience was wearing thin in city hall, as Baltimore had churned through its third police commissioner in as many years, with two of them losing their jobs for not tamping down violence. Timpson, a Baltimore native, and a large figure in violence interruption, came to Roca from Safe Streets, giving the program credibility. After a political fight over funding, the city pitched in $2.5m over four years, a fraction of Roca’s cost; Roca is mostly funded by philanthropic groups like the Abell Foundation in Baltimore and the Annie E Casey Foundation.

Roca-Baltimore hasn’t had a full class of participants finish the four years, so they’re unable to measure outcomes in hard numbers. But there are signs of success. Of those who have been through the Massachusetts program, 84% were not arrested afterward.

There is some hope that programs like Roca could amplify their impact with a boost from Biden’s $5bn pledge to assist community-based gun violence prevention groups. But money, spread across the country over eight years, will be up against the time it takes to transform the lives of the young men on the frontlines. In the time it takes Roca to make progress with its clients, they can be arrested or in some cases killed.

Roca’s supporters have a favored analogy for the program’s length and persistence. “All of us at that age are not wired to think long-term. You need a support network that can put you in an environment that can get you through that time until you get to a point where the lightbulb comes on,” said Marc Schindler, the executive director of Justice Policy Institute, a Washington DC-based thinktank that works on criminal justice solutions. “We have another place where we send kids that age to grow up and we let them make mistake after mistake until they do. It’s called college.”

Fight or flight

Roca helps people figure out their long-term plans. But helping young men and women move past crises can be a sisyphean task. On one morning in May, West and Harvell headed to south-west Baltimore to pick up Tyron, who has been with the program since its start. The subject that day: how his housemates disrespect him.

He was arrested for armed robbery at 16, and eventually referred to Roca by Baltimore’s department of human services. Now 20, Tyron is looking for a way out of Baltimore. “A plant can’t grow if it stays in the same pot,” Tyron said. One-liners like that provide a glimpse into Tyron’s intelligence. Like a lawyer, he sparred with Harvell in the back of the minivan as West drove Tyron to the grocery store.

Tyron grew up in foster care. His biological parents have been in and out of his life, contributing to a sense of abandonment. The feeling that he isn’t receiving sufficient respect drove his entire conversation with Harvell. In the case of his roommates, it’s who is cleaning, who can have guests, and remembering to close the bathroom door.

The conflict might seem small. But it’s not for Tyron and so many others. When tension builds all people choose to fight, flee or freeze. “More often than not, our guys choose to fight because that’s where they feel comfortable,” Palermo said.

Harvell reached to the center console of the minivan for a deck of laminated cards that list the different components of cognitive behavioral therapy. He flipped to the card that read: “think, do, feel.” Harvell suggested that his method of communication might not work with his housemates. Tyron didn’t want to hear it. Harvell paused, and allowed Tyron to blow off more steam. “You can’t expect people to sympathize with your life affairs,” Harvell told Tyron. “Cause everybody has their own issues.”

Then Tyron stopped, and told Harvell he appreciated the way he explained the issue. Harvell’s move was subtle. “I gave him CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] without him knowing he was getting CBT,” Harvell later said.

West, who had made the initial contact with Tyron, reflected on his path. “He was much harder to work with when we started,” West said. It’s taken years of sessions like this to get Tyron to embrace Harvell’s approach. Four years ago, Tyron was barely literate, according to West. Now he has become a voracious reader, and a bit of a know-it-all.

Leaving Baltimore behind

Harvell and West left the Food Depot and took Tyron to lunch at a Peruvian restaurant on Eastern Avenue, the heart of the city’s Latinx community. Tyron smiled more, and asked the cooks about a dish he had never seen before. It was tripe, beef stomach. “I’ll try that,” Tyron said. The trio sat for lunch, and debated their top five rappers. The question: whether to include Notorious BIG and Tupac. When one person omitted Biggie, Tyron said: “And I was just about to say I like you.”

At lunch, Tyron shared his plan – something he didn’t always have. Harvell was working on getting him placed in a Job Corps program, so that Tyron can complete it, get his record expunged, and join the marines. Tyron said he wanted to leave Baltimore behind. But not entirely. Perhaps he could come back between deployments and volunteer with Roca. Harvell took the keys and drove Tyron back across town to his house.

Tyron asked Harvell about rejoining a Roca work crew to earn some money. At one point that day, he had mentioned the temptation to return to the streets to earn a living. “It’s so easy for me to get a pack [of heroin], or pick up a gun and start robbing [expletive],” Tyron said.

Miayan’s drug earnings were meager compared with some of the other Roca participants West and Harvell interact with. “These guys are earning $7,500 a day on that corner,” West said, pointing to a hot drug corner in West Baltimore. One young man there pulled his hoodie over his handgun when West pulled up on the corner. Sometimes, they tell West to stay away because there are too many guns out. For as entrenched these young men are in the drug economy, they don’t want anything to happen to their ally.

Anthony Scroggins holds his ear to his phone as he makes his way across Baltimore to meet with a Roca client suffering from a gunshot wound.
Anthony Scroggins holds his ear to his phone as he makes his way across Baltimore to meet with a Roca client suffering from a gunshot wound. Photograph: Shan Wallace

Tyron and Miayan are part of Baltimore’s street economy, but they’re not at the heart of it. If Baltimore is to curb violence, Roca also needs to reach those who are most entrenched so they can act as force multipliers in reducing violence. Convince a corner captain, for example, that violence on his block works against his interest, and he can impart that message to his crew.

A profitable drug corner is a target for guys who want to stick up dealers. As a result, many men on the corners are armed. They are often in jeopardy of facing long prison terms for their roles in the drug trade, or for carrying weapons to protect themselves from routine violence. And often they are in their late teens and early 20s, the exact age at which life in Baltimore is deadliest.

During the reporting of this story, federal agents served a warrant on a Roca participant. It wasn’t the first time that happened.

Heartbreak and Hope

Emmanuel Holly entered Roca in early February. Holly was on home monitoring for a prior criminal conviction when his youth intervention specialist Anthony Scroggins first visited. The two played chess together and began to build a rapport. His ankle monitor kept the teen from venturing far. But shortly after his 18th birthday in late February, Holly successfully petitioned to have his monitor removed. His interactions with Scroggins became more sporadic, until 18 April, when Holly was shot twice in the leg near the corner of Mount and Fayette streets.

On 17 May, Holly died as a result of the gunshot wounds. He was the 119th homicide victim in the city in 2021.

For every Emmanuel Holly, there’s usually a Miayan. On a sunny Friday afternoon in May, the Roca office was full, lively after a year when the pandemic had limited indoor gatherings. Food lined a table, the staff decked out in Roca T-shirts and hats, and Miayan, now 20, accepted an award from the national organization for peacemaking.

He has come a long way since his days outrunning the police: drug free for a year, employed by Johns Hopkins hospital in housekeeping for seven months. He opened his first bank account, and is saving for a car. Miayan thinks differently about time now. In years, instead of days. He plans to finish his high school diploma, and possibly get a commercial drivers license. Some of the guys from his old crew are facing federal indictment on drug charges. The case came down while he was in his coma.

During the presentation of the award, a video played. Much of it documented his recovery. There’s Miayan taking some of his earliest steps following his fall, doing squats to build back strength in his leg. West is in the frame, watching. The bond between the two can feel paternal. When Miayan stopped by the Roca office on his way to work a few weeks back, he cracked jokes with West, checking to see when he needed to leave for his job. His shift started at 3pm. He didn’t want to be late.