Researchers Can Help Inform Street Outreach Movement

by Patricia Campie and Ryan Basen

In the popular HBO show “The Wire,” Dennis “Cutty” Wise returns to his Baltimore home after being released from prison following a 14-year incarceration and attempts to help urban young males involved in the gang warfare that once marked his lifestyle. Cutty opens a gym and solicits many of these youth to try boxing.

He offers them solace from gangbanging and an opportunity to begin to change their lives. Alas, many of Cutty’s outreach efforts ultimately fail, including some with kids whom he initially persuades to join his gym.

Cutty is a fictitious character, but his struggles mirror those that outreach workers experience in urban areas nationwide. Despite their sincere intentions and work ethic, many are challenged to alter the course of young lives because of factors outside their control.

Outreach workers struggle in part because of how they are deployed. Street outreach should be initiated as a violence prevention strategy with workers employed to foster stability, not as “storm troopers” deployed after a shooting, or as violence interrupters thrown into the middle of a crisis.

Researchers can intervene by adjusting how they study violence among high-risk urban youth. And they can start by interacting with outreach workers to understand and measure their impact.

A new evaluation promotes that interaction, fueled by a recently conducted best practice review. Researchers with American Institutes for Research, WestEd and Justice Resource Institute have revealed street outreach to be a potential key component of urban violence prevention strategies.

Our best practice review suggests that establishing connections between youth and community services via outreach is a tactic shared by programs that effectively counter violence.

The broader evaluation advances this suggestive research finding, by creating a means to measure the delivery and impact of outreach linked to service provision with positive youth development and crime reductions.

Our best practice review is detailed in two new reports: What Works to Prevent Urban Violence Among Proven Risk Young Men?: The Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI) Evidence and Implementation Review, and Strategies to Prevent Urban Violence. Both will be published soon on www.AIR.org.

The review was conducted per an evaluation of the Massachusetts Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI), which aims to implement a strategy to reduce serious violence among targeted groups of young (ages 14-24) urban males throughout the state. We identified and analyzed 11 evaluations of citywide programs with goals similar to SSYI. All were operated in high-crime cities: Baltimore, Brooklyn, Chicago (which had two), Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Philadelphia; Pittsburgh, Stockton, Calif., and Massachusetts cities Boston and Lowell.

To our surprise, 10 of these 11 programs were deemed effective — meaning they reported a 10 percent reduction in violent incidents such as homicides and shootings. The effective programs all utilized street outreach workers and provided positive development supports to high-risk youth via the outreach.

Their tactics include helping youths find work, access to community programs and assistance earning a GED. Programs also employed other tactics, such as devising lists of high-risk individuals to target for suppression and social services, and involving multiple agencies. We did not evaluate individual program components to determine their impact on violence, but the programs consistently included outreach and connection to services.

Our best practice review also reveals that programs should employ a multifaceted approach to reducing violence that incorporates tapping resources and expertise from agencies across different sectors (e.g. justice, education, housing) while partnering with community players.

It’s also essential to implement the programs effectively. Implementation research included in our review suggests that an organization’s ability to intervene depends on:

  • Credible staffing and management practices
  • Specific capacity to run different types of interventions (e.g. street outreach)
  • Motivation to implement the innovation — derived from staff and organizational culture, and fit within the community.

Our research team is completing a full evaluation of the SSYI program, and is working with violence prevention programs and their outreach workers to develop tools measuring incremental milestones reached by their clients, using specific outreach strategies. These findings could inform practice guidelines that organizations use to train workers, create internal benchmarks to continuously improve practice, and track progressive goal attainment for youth they serve.

The point is to capture the essential features and dosages of a violence intervention model using street outreach programs working with the highest risk young persons in fragile urban communities.

Then future Cuttys should be more successful.

Dr. Patricia E. Campie is the co-principal investigator for the SSYI evaluation, along with Anthony Petrosino, Senior Research Associate with WestEd. Campie, a Principal Researcher with AIR’s Human & Social Development Program, is a former director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice and has more than 16 years’ experience working in justice research and evaluation. Ryan Basen is a Research Associate with AIR.    

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