Team of youths who worked to stop violence axed with little explanation 

click to enlarge A boy holds a sign in memory of Donte White, who was gunned down in 2006, as a woman points to the sky during a rally at City Hall recently following a rash of killings in The City’s southeast neighborhoods. - JESSICA CHRISTIAN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner file photo
  • A boy holds a sign in memory of Donte White, who was gunned down in 2006, as a woman points to the sky during a rally at City Hall recently following a rash of killings in The City’s southeast neighborhoods.

It was a beef over a girl, made worse because the two rivals came from different neighborhoods. At least that was the gist of the phone call Hassan Clarkson received in early 2011.

When Clarkson, 31, and Guy Hudson -- both employed as part of the Bayview-Hunters Point Community Response Network, a city-funded program to deflate violence in the area -- got to the scene, they found three armed men lurking outside a house, their rival stuck inside.

"'Somebody's getting killed today,'" Clarkson recalls one of the young men saying.

For the next 45 minutes, Clarkson and his partner talked to the men, eventually convincing them to leave the scene for 10 minutes so the man in the house could be spirited to safety.

"We were able to save a life that day," Clarkson said. "That work ... is heart work, and you can't put a value on that. It's not just a job."

For the past four years, Clarkson has been responding to crises like this one. Paid about $18 an hour, Clarkson, along with a team of 11 other outreach staffers, responds to everything from fights at high schools to the scenes of shootings to calm nerves and prevent retaliation.

click to enlarge Hassan Clarkson
  • Hassan Clarkson

The program, born in 2004 in the Mission district to address youth gang violence, was expanded to the Bayview district and overseen by the Bayview Hunters Point Foundation. In the past decade, The City has spent more than $10 million on the program.

By many accounts it has worked.

But for much of Clarkson's team, that work came to an abrupt end in June just as the usual summer violence was spiking.

It wasn't, by most accounts, because Clarkson or his colleagues were doing a bad job. Rather, it was because they didn't meet new employment rules after The City changed the nonprofit overseeing the program as part of a reorganization. The new nonprofit has stricter rules for who it will hire, and many of the former network workers are not being asked back. In the meantime, as the reorganization is underway this summer, the program is working on staffing.

In Clarkson's case, he had points on his license from a DUI in 2007 that barred him from re-employment.

"As of June 30th, the Community Response Network as it has been will no longer exist," Clarkson wrote in a letter to Mayor Ed Lee. "In its place is a model that frankly I and countless others do not believe will work for our community."

click to enlarge Malia Cohen
  • Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner file photo
  • District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen, right, has pledged to create a task force on gun violence in The City. Shawn Richard, who plans to run for supervisor against Cohen and heads Brothers against Guns, says that in order to reach the people who need help in Bayview-Hunters Point, the counselors need to know the type of life being led in the neighborhood.

Jacob Moody, executive director of the Bayview Hunters Point Foundation, said his organization was given no reason for the changes in how CRN was run. It received a call from The City one day announcing the change, he said.

Whatever the motivation, many with knowledge of the program say the southeast's recent spate of homicides could have been at least mitigated if not for the CRN firings. They worry that yet another city plan is an unneeded reinvention of the wheel with little guarantee that the most violence-prone neighborhoods will have people on the ground who know the area and, more importantly, are known in the neighborhood.

While the existing "model" worked, said Maria Sou -- who heads The City's Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, which funds the program -- she would not say why former CRN employees from the southeast were not rehired, other than that they didn't meet hiring requirements.

"We do rely on the fiscal agencies' hiring practices," she said of the nonprofit that acts as the program's financial manager.

But a spokesman for HealthRIGHT 360, the new fiscal agent overseeing the program, said Sou was mistaken.

"The decisions are at the direction of the Mayor's Office," said Robert Joyce, Health 360's spokesman. "We are not involved in anything involving staffing policy or decisions."

A Mayor's Office spokesman said street violence prevention will continue in the Bayview-Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley areas with 11 staff members doing street work and along with a 25-person citywide team. In all, seven former CRN staffers have been offered positions in the newly organized program.

One of the rehired staffers, James Caldwell, 42, said he is among only five remaining from the Bayview CRN. The new centralized program's head is working hard, he said, but the old program "was effective."

The City said a newly organized plan directly run by the Mayor's Office and headed by Diana Oliva-Aroche, dubbed the Street Violence Response Program, will hire staffers who have had similar experiences as the people they are trying to connect with, but additionally will have more training, oversight and communication with the rest of San Francisco's crisis response.

"There were certain aspects that we worked on adamantly," Oliva-Aroche said about the former CRN. "But there were other areas that needed work. I think that there were a lot of different questions about how well staff was being trained, whether or not staff had all the support that they needed and how well they were linking up with the work The City was doing around public safety."

The City is "committed to ensuring culturally competent staff are hired," according to the Mayor's Office, but some say that getting rid of outreach staffers who have built relationships in the area is the wrong way to go.

"Not everyone can do this work," said Shawn Richard, who is running for supervisor in District 10 and heads Brothers Against Guns. "[Even] if you are from the community and you don't know the kids. Can I come to hire you to work with these kids? No. You can't reach them."

Instead, he added, what is needed are "folks that have been there, that lived that life."

Oliva-Aroche said that is exactly who they aim to fill those roles with, even if that does not include all former CRN outreach staff from the southeast.

Still, others ask why the model is once again being re-created instead of improved.

Pastor Jeffrey Branner of St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church said he would vouch for any former CRN staffers.

"I know most of them, if not all of them," he said. "To me, it was a pretty good program. ... If something's not broke, why try to fix it?"

Lynn Westry, who is part of the Department of Public Health's six-person crisis response team and has been doing the work since 2000, agrees.

"Why are you re-creating the wheel?" she said.

While she admits there were areas for improvement, much of the team's success came from the years spent in the schools and neighborhoods, making their faces known and trusted.

"It takes a very long time to put back together relationships," she said.

Moody, of the Bayview Hunters Point Foundation, which oversaw the CRN program until June 30, said the people who made up CRN knew what was happening in the streets and were doing a good job. Their absence will not be good for the neighborhood, Moody said.

"Any time there's a significant change in the way in which services are delivered in the community, there's an opportunity, a period of time, where there's a vacuum," he said.

Meanwhile, Richard, who led a rally at City Hall in mid-July to raise awareness about violence in the southeast, said he planned to meet with Mayor Lee about rehiring the CRN team.

But for Clarkson, the loss of a job is less important than what he could have prevented.

"I feel like we could have done something," he said about the recent homicides. "I feel like somebody could have been saved in all this."

So too does Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the area. On Thursday, she said she plans to introduce legislation "calling for the creation of a citywide Gun Violence Task Force, comprised of city departments and community leaders.

"This Task Force will help coordinate responses and proactive efforts as well as receive feedback from the public. To advise and steer this task force, I will be immediately enlisting the help of professional that are working in the education, trauma, health, law enforcement and other fields."

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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