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Anti-violence workers in Chicago distribute face masks and toiletries to residents. [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

Community Violence

Chicago Doubled Its Street Outreach Workers. Memorial Day Weekend Could Be a Big Test.

Shootings typically jump during summer months. Gun violence prevention groups hope reinforcements can stem the tide.

Gun violence prevention groups in Chicago will face their first major challenge of the season over the Memorial Day weekend. The holiday, which historically experiences a high number of shootings, could preview the intensity of violence in the coming months as Illinois rolls back its stay-at-home restrictions amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

Ahead of the weekend, anti-violence organizations announced they would dispatch nearly 400 street outreach workers to 72 locations considered “hot spots” for gun violence. The focus is important, officials say, in a city where gun conflicts are sometimes driven by rival territories that exist block-by-block.  

“Those entire communities are not violent, there are parts of those neighborhoods that are very, very safe,” said Arne Duncan, the founder of Chicago CRED, a violence prevention group, during a May 21 press conference.” But we do have hot spots that are particularly violent.”

Chicago’s anti-violence groups employ roughly 200 street outreach workers year-round, but doubled their ranks last month through an annual, temporary expansion called “Flatlining Violence Inspiring Peace,” or FLIP. The privately funded, multimillion dollar initiative is organized by Chicago CRED and Communities Partnering 4 Peace, or CP4P, a gun violence prevention collaborative. 

“Every holiday weekend is a vulnerable time for us and so we just want to be smart and look at the history and respond accordingly,” said Vaughn Bryant, who oversees CP4P. “We would be dumb if we didn’t do something different, given what we see on some of the holidays.”

Outreach workers often live in the communities they serve and work on the frontlines of the city’s gun violence crisis. Since March, they have turned part of their focus to the coronavirus outbreak, spreading awareness and distributing personal protective equipment, food, and toiletry supplies.

Although Chicago has been under a stay-at-home order since late March, that has done little to stop shootings. According to county data, more than 170 people have been shot and killed in the city as of late May, a slight increase over last year. 

Over Memorial Day weekend, the combination of holiday gatherings, an additional day off, and typically warmer weather, create conditions ripe for conflicts that might result in gun violence. Almost 40 people were shot during the holiday in 2019, according to police data. Last year, the Chicago Police Department increased its own “hot spot” patrols, and deployed more than 1,200 additional officers. CPD will increase its patrols again this year. The weekend will also bring the launch of the city’s Summer Operations Center, a seasonal, multi-agency effort to coordinate and distribute resources to residents.

“We’ve historically seen [a rise] in shootings and killings over those weekends,” said Jalon Arthur, who oversees the FLIP program for Chicago CRED. “By it being the start of summer, it could actually set a tone for what we can expect” during the coming season. 

Arthur said an analysis of shootings during Memorial Day weekend in 2019 showed there were none on the majority of blocks when a street outreach worker was present. 

Street outreach work, which relies on face-to-face interactions with residents in high-violence neighborhoods, is made riskier because of COVID-19. City data shows that the same communities disproportionately affected by gun violence are also experiencing higher rates of confirmed coronavirus cases. These disparities impact mostly black and Latino neighborhoods that have faced decades of systemic disinvestment. 

With the holiday weekend looming, some outreach teams in the city have spent weeks crafting nonaggression and peace agreements between rival groups in an effort to prevent retaliatory shootings. The upcoming weekend could put the strength of these agreements to the test. 

“At the end of the day, we’re definitely focused on trying to get as close to zero shootings and killings over Memorial Day weekend,” Arthur said. 

In January, before the virus struck, officials set the ambitious goal to have fewer than 400 homicides in Chicago for the first time in 50 years. Organizations laid out a similar goal last year, but did not meet it. Still, violence overall in the city is down from the historic uptick Chicago saw in 2016, when more than 760 people were shot and killed. 

“We still have half of the year left,” Arthur said. “We have a real opportunity to course-correct and get back on track. Until we actually reach 400 — we’re still in the game.” 

Although warm weather is expected this weekend, thunderstorms are forecasted for part of it. Anti-violence groups cautioned earlier this week that harsh weather can act as a deterrent to gun violence, but not always. They say they’re prepared either way.