The coronavirus landed in Milwaukee’s black communities like a spark on kindling. By the end of April, a month and a half after the virus arrived, more than 2,000 residents were infected. Black people, who account for just over a third of the population, made up two-thirds of the city’s coronavirus deaths.

As the public health crisis rages, feeding on decades of compounded inequality and segregation, it’s moving alongside another fire. Milwaukee saw 48 homicides between the start of the year and April 29 — double the number during the same period in 2019. The night of Sunday, April 5, there were four separate shootings.

Across America, most forms of crime have plummeted over the past month and a half. Traffic stops, burglaries, and drug offenses are down. But data collected by the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings in real time, shows a 6 percent increase in fatal shootings nationwide compared with the same period in each of the past three years. The first two weeks of April have been the deadliest.

The violence hasn’t been evenly distributed, according to a Trace analysis of crime data from nine major U.S. cities. After lockdowns began in Los Angeles and Baltimore, both gun violence and other violent crime fell below the levels typically seen in spring months. But in other cities, shootings have shown no sign of slowing. Philadelphia and Nashville, Tennessee, were experiencing surges when the stay-at-home orders were imposed, and the rates of gun violence have remained high. Chicago; New Orleans; D.C.; Tucson, Arizona; and Dallas have all recorded weekly spikes in gun violence, suggesting that the pace of bloodshed may not let up even as the pandemic subdues other types of violent crime.

The increase in gun deaths has occurred as police departments across the country have reported scores of officers out sick or under quarantine. Some have said that the pandemic has impeded deterrence tactics proven to reduce shootings, like visiting the hospital room of someone who was recently shot or the funeral of a victim to convince people to turn away from retaliation. At the same time, the virus has disrupted community outreach programs that have seen success in recent years. This work depends on a cadre of trustworthy messengers, often formerly incarcerated people, to defuse conflicts through careful, intimate conversations in community centers or hospitals. Now the public health crisis and its attendant economic strain are squeezing those programs in neighborhoods where gun violence continues to rage.

Derrick Rogers is the program director of 414Life in Milwaukee, a city-funded anti-violence group. “When it was made clear from the health department who or which individuals are most susceptible to obtaining the virus — you’re talking about over half of my staff,” Rogers said. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have hampered his team, he added, robbing it of the face-to-face interactions that its work requires. “That’s the strongest part of our game right there. They see us and they feel us when we meet them in person, and now we’re expected to try to find a way to do that digitally?”

Interviews with violence prevention workers in Nashville, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Oakland, California, suggest this struggle is widespread. They have been forced to get creative to keep themselves and their clients safe and, in many cases, to embrace a new public health role: educating their cities’ most at-risk residents about the virus and how to prevent its spread. Many are also grappling with slashed funding for their programs and dire employment prospects for their clients. The coronavirus crisis, layered on top of the persistent problem of shootings, has forced some nonviolence workers to consider a more expansive definition of their work and of the value they can provide to beleaguered communities. 

In the middle of the night on March 3, a devastating tornado ripped through Nashville, killing two dozen people and displacing hundreds. Soon after, coronavirus cases started popping up in the state, bringing new health concerns, job losses, and food shortages.

Gun violence across Nashville was up 37 percent during the first two weeks of the city’s stay-at-home order, compared with the 2015-to-2019 average. Other violent crime was down by 21 percent. Metro Nashville Police Department spokesperson Don Aaron declined to comment on the divergence. “We are not in the practice of validating someone else’s attempt at analysis,” he said in an email.

Gideon’s Army, a grassroots violence prevention group based in North Nashville, has been helping residents through the string of hardships. “It’s all connected,” said Jamel Campbell-Gooch, the organization’s deputy director. “You can’t address the violence without addressing everything else, too.”

North Nashville is a historically black neighborhood plagued by poverty and isolated from resources, with one of the country’s highest rates of incarceration among the middle-aged. The tornado left residents, many of whom had no insurance, without transportation, food, or shelter. Gideon’s Army founder and president Rasheedat Fetuga says that within hours of the tornado, her staff had bought flashlights and were navigating fallen trees and downed power lines, even cutting through fences to make sure people were OK.

At first, Gideon’s Army members set up in a local community center so people could come and get food, diapers, or other necessities. They paid to fix cars that had been crushed during the tornado, and for hotel rooms to house displaced families. But as the number of coronavirus cases grew, they shifted to a delivery system, taking orders on their website from people who needed food and medicine, even from an expectant mother who needed a car seat.

Hambino Godbody, a violence interrupter working in North Nashville, says his work is “as necessary as being a mother or a father.”

The group’s violence prevention work follows the Cure Violence model developed by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin. Cure Violence teaches that violence spreads like an infectious disease — and can be stopped by interrupting “transmission.” Slutkin’s model was developed after the better-known work of criminologist David Kennedy, which got its start in Boston in 1996, and involved closer coordination with law enforcement. Both are influenced by the idea that young people involved in shootings are, for the most part, stuck in a vicious cycle, not motivated by sociopathy.

Gideon’s Army keeps in close contact with the people most at risk for committing violence, mediating conflicts before they escalate and guns become involved. The organization, started by volunteers in 2011, now has nine paid staff members. Even in typical times, Gideon’s Army takes a more holistic approach to stopping violence than many other violence prevention groups. Its workers visit classrooms to teach students social and emotional skills. When a family loses a loved one in a shooting, an outreach worker cooks food for survivors, helps plan the funeral, and sometimes even pays for the clothes that the family member is buried in.

In the wake of the tornado and the coronavirus, the organization received an infusion of donations, but Campbell-Gooch said he’s worried about what will happen when news stories about both eventually leave the front page.

Community members are still gathering on sidewalks and in parks. Although outreach workers are using technology to keep in touch with people they serve, the most delicate part of their work isn’t meant to be conducted virtually. Conflict resolution often involves getting the opposing parties in a room together and forging a truce while allowing everyone to maintain dignity. Doing that over the phone, sometimes with people they’ve never met in person, is much harder. “A lot of our work involves finding ways to allow people to save face, and you really can’t do that remotely,” he said.

Social distancing also seems to be affecting the conflicts themselves. “What I’m realizing is that the conflicts are exacerbated online,” Campbell-Gooch said. “They burn hotter, and the escalation point comes way sooner than if it were playing out face-to-face.”

Fetuga said her team noticed a spike in shootings soon after the state’s stay-at-home order started, but Gideon’s Army kept working long hours defusing conflicts, both on the phones and on foot. She said she urges her workers to wear masks and keep their distance to protect both themselves and the people they serve, but she said it’s a challenge to offer clear directions at a time when supplies are short and guidelines from government agencies are in flux. Many of Fetuga’s workers are out on the street despite the virus. “They’ll say, ‘If the children are out here, I’m out here,’ ” she said.

Hambino Godbody is one of the group’s violence interrupters. He says his work is “as necessary as being a mother or a father” and he would no sooner give it up than he would walk away from his family. Godbody, who grew up in North Nashville, is a powerfully built man with glasses and braids that fall past his shoulders. He served nine years in prison for various crimes and had trouble finding a job afterward. That life experience proved to be an asset in his current position, though. “You have to be from the streets to talk to the streets,” he said. He said he works hard to protect himself from the coronavirus, by washing his hands and avoiding large groups, but said it makes him uncomfortable to wear a mask when he’s trying to connect with people, most of whom don’t have access to protective gear. He emphasized that no one he knows has yet caught the virus, though of course experts say it often spreads asymptomatically. To Godbody, it feels like he’s fighting bigger enemies. “The systematic racism in America is the most dangerous virus that we face,” he said.

In 2019, the mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, launched the Roadmap to Safer Communities, a five-year effort to reduce gun violence in the city. Kenney’s plan treated gun violence as a public health crisis and earmarked $4 million for nonviolence work and other proven strategies. Community organizations were eligible to receive grants for job training, education, and sports leagues for teens.

But in late March, the city froze the $1 million designated for small grants to 52 anti-violence groups in 2020. The mayor’s office, in a March 23 email, said that the person-to-person contact that makes up outreach work might help spread the coronavirus.

The Father’s Day Rally Committee, which brings together men for group counseling in conflict resolution, was awarded $20,000 in January. But Bilal Qayyum, the group’s 73-year-old president, agreed with the city’s decision to put his program on hold. “We talked to the city about trying to continue the work with social distancing,” Qayyum said, “but there were concerns whether we could get the men organized into small groups to organize meetings.” Taking the work digital also wasn’t an option. In the poorest sections of the city, like North Philadelphia, a little more than one-third of households have internet access.

This outreach work has been halted at a bad moment. Even before the pandemic arrived, Philadelphia was experiencing a surge in violence. In March, the city recorded 141 shootings, a 52 percent increase over the same period in each of the last three years. The last 24 hours of the month brought seven shootings. The youngest victim was a toddler, struck during a birthday party.

On March 31, Kenney urged the district attorney to crack down on gun possession in the city by applying harsher sentencing. Meanwhile, experts say the loss of anti-violence workers has left a vacuum on the streets, allowing conflicts to explode.

Michael Chase has spent the last seven months as a crisis intervention worker with the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, which does street outreach and mediation and is among the few such groups still operating in the city. COVID-19 has added to an already tense situation in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia, where poverty is rampant and jobs are often scarce.

“It’s the fear of the unknown and not knowing what’s to come,” Chase said. “For so many of these guys, they are thinking, Once I had a job, and now I don’t have a job, and now they have the stresses of how are they going to feed their families and how are they going to pay their bills.”

On April 7, Kenney said the city and its residents should be prepared for budget cuts and reduced services. It’s estimated that the city will lose more than $300 million in tax revenue over the next two years. With the dire warnings, Qayyum worries that the funding pledged for nonviolence work will never reach groups like his.

Jorge Matos, who directs street outreach at the Alliance of Local Service Organizations, a violence prevention group on Chicago’s West Side, tried to get ahead of the coronavirus crisis back in March. He asked the members of his 15-person team to individually canvass the Humboldt Park neighborhood by car, in an effort to minimize their chances of getting sick.

“And then what happened was we started seeing violence pick up in parts of Humboldt Park,” he said. “We had to go back and make adjustments.” There were six shootings on a single block during a week in late March, Matos said.

With more than 60,000 confirmed cases, Illinois has had one of the Midwest’s most severe coronavirus outbreaks. A large share of cases is in Chicago, mostly in majority black neighborhoods affected by the same systemic issues that propel gun violence. The governor’s stay-at-home order, announced on March 20, came during a slight decline in shootings. But shootings increased in April.

The city’s nearly 200 outreach workers are now fighting both epidemics. Deon Patrick, who manages a team for the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, said it was a challenge to get some residents in his West Side community to understand the seriousness of the virus. He says some wrongly believed they couldn’t get the virus because they were black.

Data from the Chicago Department of Public Health has since shown that black people account for the majority of coronavirus deaths, despite making up only a third of the city’s population.

Workers with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago distribute face masks and toiletries to residents.

Working in affected communities — often their own — is taking its toll on those who do street outreach, said Vaughn Bryant, who leads Communities Partnering 4 Peace, a collaborative of more than a dozen gun violence prevention groups in the city. “There’s a level of sadness, because of the clear historical trauma and disenfranchisement of these communities due to systemic oppression,” he said. “I think there are a lot of mixed emotions right now.” Bryant said that there are ongoing conversations around hazard pay for street outreach workers, who earn a minimum of $36,000 a year.

In the meantime, many violence prevention groups are trying to create pathways to legal employment for those most at risk of getting shot. READI Chicago provides hundreds of men living in five high-poverty neighborhoods on the South and West sides with 18 months of transitional employment. But the growing unemployment rate and an increase in overqualified workers could make it harder for participants to land the jobs they’ve spent years training for.

Before the stay-at-home order, READI program participant Edward Walters spent several hours each week helping pass out food or clean buildings around the city. The pause in work makes him anxious. “I just know that what used to be my old habits — sitting around, idle time, hanging around people — could get me in trouble,” he said.

Walters, who still receives a bimonthly paycheck through READI, continues to be involved in other aspects of the program, like daily cognitive behavioral therapy. But money is tight: Walters’ fiancée was furloughed. “She’s starting to panic,” he said.

Now a couple of months away from graduating from the program, he tries to take things one day at a time. He hopes to move on to a full-time supervisor job after he graduates. “I’m just trying to do all the positives I can in my life. I’ve done did all the negatives,” Walters said.

Jamar Scott was born in North Oakland in 1988, when crack addiction and tough-on-crime policing were transforming the city into one of America’s most violent. He had a turbulent childhood, living in — and running from — group homes until graduating from high school into the state’s juvenile prison system. He did 3½ years, then returned to old habits. A string of arrests, shootings, and hospital visits followed. They earned Scott a reputation among the city’s dense network of violence intervention workers as “high-risk”: among the most likely in Oakland to shoot or be shot.

“We’ve done a lot over the years to engage Jamar,” said David Muhammad, the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, which provides assistance to local violence prevention groups in Oakland. “The first six to 12 to 18 months, it just wasn’t happening. It took persistence and consistency.”

“Persistence” meant that when Leonard Haywood — a life coach from the Oakland-based violence prevention organization Community & Youth Outreach — visited Scott in the hospital last July (four bullets to the leg, bringing his lifetime total to 11), Haywood was maybe the tenth outreach worker to enter Scott’s world. There was the team at Oakland Unite, who helped Scott gain custody of his child. There was the staff at the Bread Project, who taught Scott to bake and helped find him a job at a local bakery. There was the woman from La Familia, a local social services agency, who offered Scott a temporary room in her home. “All their programs, they’re somehow connected,” Scott said. “They helped me so much — as a unit.”

The coronavirus threatens to upend Scott’s progress. In January, he had to leave his job at the bakery, the consequence of a relocation meant to protect him from future attacks. He entered a job market that the pandemic quickly ground to a standstill. “I got enough money to pay my rent for two months,” Scott said. “I don’t know what I’ll do if it takes longer than two months for things to go back to normal.”

Since California’s lockdown took effect on March 19, violence prevention workers in Oakland have dealt with a bittersweet reality: Shootings have declined a bit, in concert with overall crime. But Haywood, Scott’s newest caseworker, said that many are worried the short-term decline in violence will be offset, once quarantines are lifted, by a new spike. They suspect that economic insecurity from job losses and grief from coronavirus-related deaths — which are on track to hit poorer black communities hardest — will lead to more shootings.

In the past five weeks alone, nearly half the people on Haywood’s caseload have lost jobs or had hours cut. His organization has provided stipends to help ease the financial burden on some, and Haywood has given money out of his own pocket on occasion to help with meals and groceries. But the money won’t last forever; much of the funding for violence prevention work in Oakland comes from local parking taxes, which have been rapidly depleted as city residents are forced to stay home.

“It’s frustrating, and it makes you wanna go back to being a criminal,” Scott said of the situation. “But… when somebody is helping you like this — genuine help, like they wanna see you make it — you’re supposed to [work] two times harder. I’ve been through too much to go back now.”

Scott’s discipline in the face of so much uncertainty buoyed Haywood. He remembered a recent conversation in which Scott, still confident despite the circumstances, told him that he would “hit the ground running” as soon as the state’s quarantine was lifted. Haywood held up the moment as an example of how his work goes beyond preventing Person X from shooting Person Y — how it can help people weather hardships like unemployment. “Our job,” he said, “is about getting them to understand that these changes gotta come from them.”

Not all of the people on Haywood’s caseload would respond this way, he acknowledged, and there is a limit to the number of people outreach workers can reach in a city of almost half a million. But what Scott’s story showed, he said, was that violence prevention work provides a robust enough safety net that people can afford, on occasion, to falter.

Guillermo Cespedes, who is the director of violence prevention for the city of Oakland, agreed. He said that, in effect, the pandemic has forced everybody in his field to reassess their roles as public health providers, to ask whether cities have underutilized the credible messengers responsible for violence interruption. “I see interrupters doing a broader systems assessment of the client as a result of this pandemic. They’re more conscious of family, of living conditions, of how many people are sheltering at home who may have some mental health problems,” he said. “They’re the only ones present [for these families].” Since interruption workers have already built these relationships in chronically ignored communities, he asked, shouldn’t cities rely on them for more than violence prevention? Couldn’t they have been dispatched with coronavirus testing kits? Shouldn’t they be trained to provide mental health resources, or job training, or substance abuse services? To help more than just the small sliver of the population most at risk of dying by gunfire?

“I don’t remember any time in my 40-plus years of doing this work where we’ve had an event like this — that really demands we see the work differently, and see ourselves differently,” he said. “These violence interrupters came about because traditional professions didn’t have the credibility to engage certain folks. … We can be doing more.”