Since COVID-19 hit, change has been a constant for everyone. The same is true for ALSO’s street outreach team, but one key thing remains: The team continues to work in partnership with people living in risk of violence to promote safe streets and homes. Street outreach workers are considered essential workers by the city of Chicago.
“We’re still keeping a pulse on the community,” says Jorge Matos, director of ALSO’s Safe Streets program. “We connect with participants, and we have a presence.”
“Every day when outreach workers are clocking in, they know they are possibly saving lives – whether our team is mediating a conflict or passing out information for community members to understand the pandemic,” Matos adds. “Our street outreach workers have passion for the community and the willingness to do the job. We’re also paying close attention to what we have learned about COVID-19 and strive to maintain the safety of staff.”
A New Reality
The Safe Streets program has adapted to the new reality of COVID-19 by emphasizing remote work and social distancing when possible, while also continuing to monitor hot spots in the neighborhood. Before this crisis, much of the program’s work involved large gatherings and events that bring together in-risk youth and working one-on-one with participants to prevent violence and show them there are alternatives. Now, outreach workers like Luis Rodriguez are using mobile canvassing, with one outreach person per car driving around a designated part of the community and, in some cases stopping to talk to community residents from their car. If an outreach worker comes across a conflict, they can step out of their car, contact other members of the team and work to resolve it if needed. They also respond to the scene of shootings to prevent retaliation. In addition, outreach workers wear face masks and gloves, which have been generously donated by Chicago CRED, Metropolitan Family Services and community members, and stay six feet away from their participants and from each other.
This work is especially important in Humboldt Park, the community ALSO serves. Humboldt Park is among Chicago communities most affected by gun violence. Meanwhile, data clearly show that minorities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Humboldt Park is predominately African American and Latino.
On any given day, 10 to 12 ALSO outreach workers are in the community. The team has also continued to integrate into its work steps for addressing the intersection of community and domestic violence. Many outreach staff have been trained on these issues through the Metropolitan Peace Academy, a citywide training ground for outreach professionals.
Matos adds that during this time of “shelter at home,” community and city residents have donated supplies to ALSO to support ongoing work. The outreach team then prepares supplies for each outreach worker, who can distribute supplies and food to families in need. Meanwhile, ALSO has partnered with other community-based organizations that face the same challenges including Breakthrough Urban Ministries and UCAN, which have shared food with ALSO for distribution to residents of Humboldt Park.
In addition, Matos participates on a citywide phone call about public safety every morning with community partners, the Mayor’s Office, and funders to discuss shootings and strategize about street outreach during a pandemic. Next month, Matos says, the program’s capacity to do outreach will be bolstered by the presence of 33 FLIP workers (Flatlining Violence Inspiring Peace), who will work to maintain peace in hotspot areas and pass out public information about COVID-19. That, he says, is scheduled to happen whether the state’s “stay at home” rules are extended beyond April 30 or not. These community residents, who will work alongside ALSO’s outreach team, will be given masks and gloves, and will be trained in how to help keep their blocks safe and healthy.
For Tara Campbell, Resilience Program Manager at ALSO, COVID-19 has also altered the way ALSO provides services to victims. In the current situation, the challenge involves finding a way to maintain distance and build trust at the same time. “One of the main characteristics of victim advocates is to express compassion and empathy for people who experience violence, which often means an in-person meeting but may also involve transport to legal or doctor’s appointments, or more,” she says. “It’s about walking alongside someone. Right now, sometimes the only way to connect is over the phone.”
For one victim of violence, Campbell helped explain the process of filling out a victim compensation form, which is filed with the Illinois Attorney General’s office. For another, she connected a family with grief counseling through a partner agency. For a third, she helped with safety planning for a victim of domestic violence seeking safety.
Communication is always key -- perhaps even more so in a situation where people must maintain their distance from each other. In some cases, hospital responders inform ALSO Safe Streets supervisors Rolando Otero and Terry Gage about incidents. They follow up by sharing key information with Campbell. At that point, she reaches out to the victim’s family or friend – whomever is the point of contact for the victim. “From there, we talk about what services are needed,” she says. Campbell adds that ALSO’s case management team can provide phone support and do problem-solving with victims of domestic violence while Chicago’s domestic violence shelters are closed due to COVID-19.
In addition, ALSO’s outreach and reentry case management services include support for those released early from Cook County Jail due to COVID.
In the Community
Meanwhile, outreach worker Cierra McGee says it’s important to “stay motivated and patient. I just have to be more observant and cautious, but still do my work.” Since COVID-19 started, for example, she connected program participants to Walmart, which was hiring people for temporary positions. She also adapts to the current situation by using a face mask, hand sanitizer, gloves, Lysol wipes, and an alcohol spray to keep herself – and her car – safe and clean.
McGee has also been learning about the facets of violence prevention and engaging with other outreach workers throughout the city through online classes offered by the Metropolitan Peace Academy. Those classes typically are held in person, and the online classes are an effort to keep them going during the pandemic.
For outreach worker Luis Rodriguez, doing his job these days involves “approaching people in different ways, because I’m usually in a car. It’s still about building relationships. What keeps me going is the same thing. We’re in the community, and we’re sending out positive messages.”
Matos reflects on how the outreach team strives to meet community needs at a time of heightened uncertainty. “Lives are on the line, and we understand that everything is not going to be the same every day,” he says. “Street outreach workers know how to be adaptable and make a difference.”
ALSO’s street outreach work in Humboldt Park is continuing during COVID-19.
ALSO’s Safe Streets program has adapted to the new reality of COVID-19 by emphasizing remote work, mobile canvassing and social distancing when possible, while also continuing to monitor hot spots in the neighborhood.
If an outreach worker comes across a conflict, they can step out of their car, contact other members of the team and work to resolve it if needed.
“Street outreach workers know how to be adaptable and make a difference,” says Jorge Matos, Director of ALSO’s Safe Streets program.
COVID-19 has also altered the way ALSO provides services to victims. In the current situation, the challenge involves finding a way to maintain distance and build trust at the same time. Right now, sometimes the only way to connect is over the phone.
ALSO is an organization committed to ending violence in homes and communities nationwide. Your contribution will help us live out our mission to develop, promote and implement model programs in order to build a movement for peace and safety in the coming year.
With your support, we will:
Continue providing jobs for in-risk youth through our 10-10-10 job training program.
Provide bystander intervention training for youth and community members, giving people the skills to know how to increase safety in high risk situations.
Explore and reveal the relationship between intimate partner and community violence to create programming that will reduce both.