On a dark night in July 2008, a group of gang members from New Haven’s Hill district piled into three cars and drove downtown. Tensions with a gang from a neighboring district had escalated in the preceding two weeks, and the violence was beginning to claim innocent bystanders such as Antoinette Joyner, 54, who died after being hit by a stray bullet on June 29. Carrying handguns, the gang members drove to Winthrop Avenue, where they intended to meet their rivals and settle the score.
Though they were packing heat, the gangsters, most of whom were adolescents, weren’t planning on another shootout, nor were they intent on seeing anyone die. Instead, they were going to talk. Reaching their destination, the cars pulled in next to a dimly-lit sidewalk, where members of the rival gang stood with four workers from the New Haven Street Outreach Program.
The Street Outreach Program, launched in July 2007 by the New Haven Family Alliance (NHFA), aims to provide resources and guidance to the city’s “at-risk youths.” “These kids are disconnected,” explains Barbara Tinney, director of the NHFA. “Until we started our work, the only interaction they had with the city was with the police. They don’t know of any other lifestyle, apart from shooting or being shot at.”
To show youths that other choices are possible, the Street Outreach Program gathered a team of workers who had been down the same path of street life, violence, and drug use, but ultimately chose to pursue education and careers. These workers fan into each district of the city from seven at night to three in the morning every day, building bonds with local youths so that they can ultimately serve as mentors, role models, and bridges to opportunity. “You can’t beat the streets,” says Tyrone Weston, supervisor of the program. “Our guys have seen it themselves. Some lost family and friends to gang life, and some lost ten years or more of their lives in prison. So they have street cred, and they use it to work hard and show that they’re honest and serious about helping their kids.”
Despite the workers’ best efforts, Weston notes that obstacles remain. “Trust is important on the streets, and we still have to earn trust with a lot of people. They avoid us or turn away from us because we work alongside the city and the police, and they’re suspicious of that. We need to show that we’re not trying to get them arrested. In fact, we’re trying to do the opposite.”
Nevertheless, progress has been steady. After a year and a half, the Street Outreach Program has identified over 300 at-risk youths, many of whom have pledged refrain from violence, enrolled in life-skills workshops, found jobs, or agreed to participate in community activities such as a basketball league organized by outreach workers. And although many youths have not fully signed on with the program, Weston believes the outreach is making a broad impact. “Even if some don’t listen to what we preach, at least they know we’re there. When they’re ready to make a change, they know who to call for help.”
Weston recalls the July night when he received the call from one of the gang leaders whose escalating feud had claimed the life of Antoinette Joiner. “They were just as tired of the shooting as anyone else in New Haven. They said, ‘We want to stop this, and we want to stop this tonight. We’ll need your help.’” Weston assembled a team of several workers to act as mediators for the meeting.
The situation on Winthrop Avenue immediately threatened to become another bloodbath as the arriving gang members climbed out of their cars. Both sides, accustomed to constant violence and danger, had brought weapons to the peace negotiations. But with the help of the outreach workers, discussions began. Representatives from each gang discussed their grievances, and while the atmosphere often became tense, both gangs eventually agreed that a truce would be in their common interest. “There was a lot of bad blood between them,” Weston recalls. “But they knew that there must be other ways to resolve those differences — that more people getting killed over a turf war was not the right solution.”
A year and a half after its inception, the Street Outreach Program is building on its foundations. It has now mediated numerous disputes, provided guidance for hundreds of youths, and established a strong presence on the streets of New Haven. Finally, somebody is talking to the isolated, neglected, and at-risk youth of the city — and it appears they are ready to listen.