Another teenager had just been shot, and Buffalo community activists were, yet again, taking to the streets. This early April afternoon, a dozen outreach workers gathered at the intersection of Roslyn Street and East Delavan Avenue, determined to curb gun violence and reduce the chances of retaliation once shootings have occurred.
Weeks before an avowed white supremacist was arrested for gunning down shoppers at the Tops Friendly Market nearby, killing 10 Black residents, staff with the nonprofit known as Buffalo SNUG walked the city’s sidewalks, advocating for peace. This was not the first time the team had canvassed this New York neighborhood, and residents and passersby showed their support. Drivers honked and onlookers waved from porches.
“Hands up! Guns down! No more shootings! No more killing!” a leader of SNUG — which stands for Should Never Use Guns and GUNS spelled backwards — shouted into a bullhorn.
Communities in Buffalo are yearning for an end to gun violence. The city is roughly 47% white and 35% African American. As of 2020, nearly 43% of its children live in poverty.
New York State has long had one of the lowest rates of firearm mortality in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, mirroring a nationwide trend during the pandemic, violent gun crimes in Erie County rose 35% in 2020, compared to the previous five-year average, according to New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services data.
Youth have been acutely impacted. A recently published article in the New England Journal of Medicine found that for the first time, the growing national number of children killed by gunfire topped all other causes of death, outpacing car accidents. While this category includes suicides and accidental shootings, the sharp increase in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a surge in firearm-related homicides. The same analysis showed that Black children are four times more likely to die in a firearm-related incident than their white peers.
Community violence intervention programs such as SNUG rely on a public health approach by establishing relationships between people at the center of neighborhood gun violence and trained outreach workers known as “violence interrupters” or “neighborhood change agents.” Similar programs exist in cities nationwide, including St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Austin, Detroit, Seattle and San Jose.
Local hospitals, law enforcement and social service agencies are also involved in the efforts. In this city, SNUG’s program is part of the larger Buffalo Rising Against Violence network based out of the Erie County Medical Center.
SNUG operates at a dozen sites across the state, through funding from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. The recently passed state budget includes $24.9 million for SNUG and community-based initiatives to prevent gun violence, triple the state’s previous investment, according to Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office. The funding allows SNUG to hire more staff and expand the number of cities reached.
The Erie County Medical Center has several contracts for street outreach and social work, including roughly $1.3 million for SNUG programs in Buffalo from October 2021 through the end of the year, according to state justice officials.
Cutting down the ‘days since last shooting’
Buffalo SNUG’s headquarters is tucked away in a local strip mall, a buzzing storefront where its Black employees of varying ages answer phones, greet walk-ins and plot their next intervention. In the meeting room, “SNUG norms” remind participants to value each other, listen, remain neutral and be accountable for themselves. There are also ads for etiquette classes and stacks of voter information material.
But a whiteboard on the wall next to a map of Cheektowaga describes the group’s urgent task: “# of Days Since,” it reads, “Last Shooting” and “Last Homicide.” Depending on the East Buffalo neighborhood, those numbers are 2, 3, or 46.
“You can never have enough people doing this work,” Program Manager Darryl Scott Jr. said in an interview. “Just like a disease, you know, violence spreads.”
Scott has a long history with community anti-violence programs, and his personal trajectory guides his work. He was released from prison in 2009 after a four-year term, and has worked both as a volunteer violence interrupter, and now as paid staff in his hometown.
“Once being part of the problem,” he said, “I just wanted to be able to fix some problems that I see in the community.”
Outreach workers go through a rigorous interview process before being hired, which includes taking questions from members of the community where they’ll be working. Once hired, they receive over 40 hours of training, and spend two months shadowing other outreach workers. Buffalo SNUG’s 11 outreach workers are trained to interrupt community violence in a variety of ways — from running restorative justice circles in local high schools to engaging disaffected youth through bike rides, barbecues, beach trips, go-kart racing and laser tag.
On a recent sunny weekday, 10 teenagers ages 15 to 18 gathered with SNUG staff at a Lake Erie beach for card games and grilled burgers. While the group relaxed, they sang together to 2Pac’s “Changes.”
Staff also give young people someone to talk to on a regular basis who is looking out for them. Each outreach worker also has a caseload of about six, mostly young people ages 14 to 25. The goal is to check in with them at least six times a month.
SNUG also mediates conflicts “with the highest risk individuals who have the potential to shoot someone or be shot,” said La’Tryse Anderson, a SNUG supervisor in Buffalo, who said she shares a similar background with those she now serves.
“I helped contribute to a lot of the mayhem,” she said of her past.
In 2017, Anderson met Scott, who was canvassing her neighborhood following a shooting, and she got involved.
Participation in the program is voluntary. But there is one criteria, Anderson added.
“They have to want to change.”
‘Promising, but mixed’
While state government support for programs like SNUG in New York is growing, more study of their effectiveness is needed. In a 2020 comprehensive review, researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded that “non-policing approaches to violence prevention can produce significant benefits without the attendant harms of policing and punishment.” But they also found that what is known to date is limited, and “evaluations of community outreach are promising but mixed.”
The approach can be difficult to evaluate for a variety of reasons. Those involved tend to be “disconnected from traditional institutions and systems of support,” they are also actively involved in illegal activities, even violent ones. The trusting relationships required to turn these trajectories around take time and resources and will “likely be interrupted by setbacks,” researchers concluded.
On top of that, pay and benefits for outreach workers, already hard to come by, is “typically low, despite the high stress and high-risk nature of their jobs.
Above all, there are deep embedded societal ills that the programs simply won’t be able to fully tackle: “structural racism and systemic barriers to health care, employment, affordable and stable housing, and quality education,” the university researchers noted.
But SNUG appears to be focused on many of the elements scholars say show promise: Reliance on “credible messengers” who have relevant lived experience; strategies that prioritize young people and focus on communities where residents face “severe and chronic financial stress.”
To be sure, the work takes a toll. The job of outreach can be taxing and traumatic for SNUG workers.
On an April weekday, two outreach staff worked with a 14-year-old student in need, who they had met before during a restorative justice session at her high school. After a three-day stay in an emergency psychiatric hospital, she immediately turned to SNUG and described abuse she’d endured at home. They provided her with hygiene products and fresh clothes. They then referred her to Buffalo’s Summer Youth Internship and Employment Program, and arranged for rides.
The SNUG employees said the work they do is rewarding. But it can be daunting as well, and they often worry about their young charges.
When asked whether she takes the work home with her, outreach worker Keke Fisher said “Yes, all the time.”
But she nonetheless remains hopeful: “I feel a big emotional attachment working with them for so long.”
Sociologists David Hureau at the University at Albany and Andrew Papachristos of Northwestern University are currently studying the work conditions for SNUG community violence interrupters in New York. Their prior work in Chicago, Illinois, the birthplace of such interventions, underscores the personal risks these community outreach workers take.
The research so far has found that more than half of outreach workers have had a participant they’ve worked with die due to violence. Around 60% percent had witnessed someone get shot at while at work, and 20% had been shot at themselves.
To keep spirits up in the Buffalo headquarters, workers try whenever possible to keep it light. On a recent day, they had finished a debrief and recap of recent shootings and mapped out a plan to prevent retaliation. After a 75-minute meeting, they gathered around a sheet cake and sang happy birthday to a colleague.
Some who come in contact with SNUG workers are initially skeptical but equally as enthusiastic for finding solutions.
“That stuff ain’t gonna work, we need more than marching and chants,” Romeo Lee quipped during the April canvassing, as he watched from his balcony.
He later told a reporter that keeping young people engaged can be a challenge.
Lee, 29, lost his uncle to violence in the nearby Langfield Homes housing projects, which he said inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps. So he’s motivated to find solutions for lasting change, and came down to the street to chat with the community outreach workers in his neighborhood.
During the conversation, he mentioned his love of making music. SNUG staff responded: Their office has a recording studio working with youth artists in need of a producer. Would he like to come visit? That day in Buffalo, a new connection was made with the organization.
Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this report.