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This anti-violence program relentlessly courts at-risk youth. It’s off to a ‘remarkable start’ in Baltimore.

Clockwise from lower right: Antione Tates, 21, a participant in Roca; Roca director of safety and community partnerships J.T. Timpson; director of operations and employment Kurtis Palermo; and outreach coordinator Teshombae Harvell. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

BALTIMORE — Antione Tates was suspicious of a white man who kept showing up at his West Baltimore home, fearing he was a police officer or a probation agent. His mother pleaded with him to call the phone number left at the door.

The number turned out to be for an outreach worker for Roca, an intensive anti-violence program that focuses on the city’s most at-risk young men by enrolling them in programs that aim to change their behavior. The goal is to make them less inclined to resort to violence.

It has had success elsewhere, primarily in Massachusetts, and it arrived in Baltimore last year as part of a $17 million, four-year project funded by the city, businesses and local philanthropies. Since then, Roca officials say they have made more than 13,000 attempts to reach at-risk young men like Tates and enroll them in therapy, classes and transitional employment services.

If that number sounds high, it’s because Roca officials say they don’t give up, and they try hard not to take no for an answer. Their staffers make multiple visits to the same young men — leaving notes on the front door — hoping that something will finally click.

The young men are often referred to them by police, probation and patrol agents and juvenile justice officials, who recognize they need help beyond a jail cell or the court system.

So far, Roca workers are successful in speaking directly to only about half of the young men they approach. Even after that, it takes repeated attempts and regular prodding to nudge the young men into the program, and officials said it will take at least two years for them to make meaningful change.

Roca’s founder, Molly Baldwin, a Baltimore native who started the program 30 years ago in Massachusetts, said, “I think it’s been a remarkable start. I think what we are hearing and seeing from young people is a desire for change.”

Roca has received 327 referrals, of whom 95 have been enrolled in job training and education programs. Roca officials hope to raise the number of young men enrolled to 175 next year and enroll an additional 60 each year for the next two years.

Former mayor Catherine E. Pugh brought the program to Baltimore as part of her crime-reduction plan. It provides services for men ages 16 to 24.

But engaging young men who have been left adrift has proven to be challenging. In recent months, five men identified by the program have been killed and eight others have been injured in shootings. Others are just difficult to find. A last-known address often leads outreach workers to the steps of vacant rowhomes, said Teshombae Harvell, a Roca outreach coordinator.

Of the referrals Roca has received in Baltimore, 62 have been incarcerated.

Harvell, an ex-offender who lost a son to violence in 2017, is responsible for reaching out to the young men. He’s been nicknamed “the bounty hunter.”

The relationship between Baltimore’s police department and its citizens has been a contentious one, punctuated by incidents such as the death of Freddie Gray and the arrest and conviction of eight officers, some charged with robbing citizens and stealing drugs while on duty, among other crimes.

But Harvell said police officers have been a big boost to the program. He said a large number of referrals come from officers who come in contact with young men and recognize they will not benefit from arrests.

“They really want to help these young men,” he said. According to the program figures, 71 percent of referrals came from police.

Even when the targets agree to talk to Roca staff, other challenges remain. Harvell recalled meeting a young man on the steps outside his house. While they talked, a car pulled up and several armed men got out. Harvell, worried about the confrontation, said he intervened and talked to the group to calm them and prevent violence.

Getting a young man like Tates, 21, through the door was a small victory.

Tates remembers approaching the relationship warily, even after he made contact with the outreach worker. He recalled how he would arrange to meet him, then stake out the meeting spot and spy on the worker to make sure he was not a law enforcement officer.

Eventually, he started regularly coming to the program, joining one of its three work crews who are assigned jobs around the city. Some days, they landscape for the city’s parks department; other days, they collect trash near City Hall. Roca officials say 32 participants have worked 6,588 hours and received paychecks.

But Baldwin said the program’s primary focus is teaching emotional control to young men who have largely been brought up with challenges such as poverty, violence and systemic racism and endured substantial trauma.

“It’s not a matter of jobs. They can’t keep them,” she said. Rather, it’s teaching young men to think before they act and, potentially, before they make a negative, life-altering decision.

Baldwin says young people don’t fully develop until age 25. Those who suffer significant trauma are slower to develop and constantly feel under threat and shut off. Violence becomes a natural reaction, said Kurtis Palermo, Roca’s director of operations and employment in Baltimore.

“It’s second nature to be reactionary,” he said. “They’ve had so much trauma, they treat everything as a threat, and the instinct is to fight, flight or freeze.”

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He said Baltimore’s trauma is more significant than that in other cities, but the program operates as it always has.

“We built a model based on relationships and trust,” he said. “The alternative is death or jail for these young men.”

For Tates and others in the program, progress is not linear. He recalled an incident in July, when he got fired from the work crew after a dispute over a water break with a supervisor. Tates said he blew up at the supervisor, threw hand sanitizer and hot sauce on the work truck, and quit Roca. He later threw a fit at the office, flipping over a table, which caused him to get kicked out of the building, but only temporarily, Harvell said.

The regression is expected, Baldwin said. Follow-up by Roca staff after such an event is crucial.

The morning after Tates said he quit, he got a call from an outreach worker standing outside his house, asking him to come back. Still angry about the situation, Tates said, he declined. But after a few days of reflection and needling from Roca officials, he said, he realized he had been wrong.

“I came to the conclusion I was being childish,” Tates said.

He also realized he wanted to stay in the program because of what he was getting out of it, he said. Unlike other programs, which would have dropped him for this behavior, Roca officials wouldn’t give up on him.

“You think these people here care about me. To me, that’s some form of a support system,” Tates said.

He went back to work the next week. He stays after work at Roca’s Baltimore office on Park Avenue, where he’s safe. On a recent day, as a group of young men played a football video game in a common area, Tates was completing chores, taking out the trash. He said he’s working toward getting his driver’s license and hopes to one day own a car dealership.

Tates said he knew he had to change after he was arrested twice in one month; he was charged once with selling drugs and again for illegally possessing a gun. As the second-oldest of eight children, he said he was looking for ways to support himself.

Without Roca, Tates said, he’d likely be out on the corner. Possibly, like a childhood friend of his, he’d be dead.

— Baltimore Sun