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Bringing Legitimacy – And Money – to San Diego Street Outreach Workers

Above: The Community Assistance Support Team visits the Casa Sierra condominium complex every couple of months for a walk-and-knock. They check in on residents who witnessed a January 2013 shooting to offer counseling, prayer and intervention for kids getting caught up in the gang lifestyle.

The California Wellness Foundation

Tasha Williamson won a California Peace Prize from The California Wellness Foundation in 2013.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Tasha Williamson said she's done come September.

"I do great work but I can't get a job," Williamson said. "I'm going to have to go into customer service or something like that so I can provide for my family. We can't survive and save lives."

Williamson is a California Peace Prize winner and co-founder of the San Diego Compassion Project, which assists families of homicide victims before the yellow tape comes down.

She provides them with grief counseling, groceries and referrals to groups that can step in and push for better outcomes for surviving brothers and sisters.

Williamson is one of a growing rank of violence intervention workers who have figured out that outreach is best performed in the streets by people who know the streets. It's a line of work that lacks polish – offices, fancy galas – and oftentimes, a paycheck.

The method of meeting people where they are to address gang violence gets high marks in places such as Los Angeles, where city policy and dollars stitch grass-roots programs into a united force. But in San Diego, the programs exist more as a patchwork – their funding divvied out in scraps.

"I come from a place where I used to hustle. I used to be a criminal," said Williamson, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and vaguely detailed getting caught up in a criminal enterprise with a boyfriend. "This work that we're doing, it's a hustle. People are hustling to get funds, but the people that would do the work for free, they’re struggling."

Now, a Los Angeles-bred activist and educator is working to end some of that struggle. Joey Nuñez Estrada started organizing License to Serve in October to legitimize the work Williamson and her dozens of counterparts do to steer young men and women away from gangs.

"It's in its very infancy," Estrada said. But 12 organizations, including the County Office of Education, have signed on. The goal: to replicate what Los Angeles calls the "two-prong model."

What L.A. Does

In 2008, Los Angeles passed the Community-Based Gang Intervention Model, a city policy that sets its overall gang-intervention strategy. It established that community groups should tackle gang violence on two levels: intervening in retaliation and supporting families in gang areas, according to a city report:

What is innovative and noteworthy about the Community-Based Gang Intervention Model is that it comes from the appropriate people at the right time. The two-prong approach calls for the deployment of peacemakers on the streets who save lives by quelling rumors, preventing and mediating conflicts, responding to crises, and by delivering rehabilitative services to gang-involved individuals, families, and communities.

In Los Angeles, groups working on either prong have the support of a deputy mayor and city grants. They have uniform criteria for evaluating their programs. And they agree on the scope of the problem they're solving.

What San Diego Does

That's not happening in San Diego.

The closest the city has gotten is the Commission on Gang Intervention and Prevention, which on paper is pretty close. A 2013 action plan submitted to the City Council describes its purpose as fostering a collaborative effort among "a broad spectrum of agencies and stakeholders" and to "advocate, formulate, and recommend for adoption proactive gang prevention policies, ordinances and guidelines."

While it has brought religious leaders, community groups, former gang members, law enforcement and regional officials to the same table, the coordination seems to be off. Estrada said it's because San Diego hasn't made a firm commitment to ending gang violence.

"In order for it to happen, it has to be a priority on the political agenda out here and I think that's what is lacking out here right now," Estrada said. "The priorities for the city are not gangs. So I think there needs to be an awareness that violence is still occurring although some of the official data is not showing that."

Street Data vs. Police Data

Right there: "Violence is still occurring although some of the official data is not showing that." That's one of the first hurdles Estrada plans to clear.

Los Angeles is ahead of the prevention and intervention curve, in big part, because its gang problem is hard to ignore. Gang homicides in the city have numbered in the triple digits since the 1980s. Compare that with San Diego's three gang homicides last year, and it's easy to see why foundations donate up north.

But street outreach workers would put San Diego's number last year closer to 15.

The San Diego Police Department, by California law, cannot label a crime "gang-related" unless it benefits or furthers gang enterprises. Translated, that means a crime is only officially gang-related if it's the result of a conflict between rival gangs.

Outreach workers say shootings and stabbings within gangs, usually over snitching and drugs, are gang-related, too. Instead of the penal code, their barometer is a simple question. "Would it have happened if there were no gangs?"

Estrada said he hopes License to Serve will institute some kind of community-based reporting that's recognized by his partners in law enforcement and City Hall.

"I think it's important to have accurate numbers to show that violence – although it seems like it's down – it's still full-force in the street," Estrada said. "We need to be able to show the community numbers so that more funding and other kind of services can come into that community and change that culture."

Estrada said he imagines License to Serve as a well-functioning collaborative, deploying groups to handle prevention and intervention under a single, deliberate vision and seeking funds and recognition that will keep outreach workers like Williamson on the ground working.

"Funders want to see what we do on paper. It's hard to get funders to come out and walk with us or come to a crime scene," Williamson said. "But we need to be in those apartments to reach kids. The Jacobs Center? That's not their natural environment. Police headquarters? That's not their natural environment either."

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