As the weather warmed up last summer, the crack of gunfire became more and more common on the streets of Poughkeepsie, New York. Grudges that had gone dormant during the pandemic reawakened. Over Memorial Day Weekend, three people were shot — one was a 14-year-old boy who had been hanging out near an elementary school. It was a trend reflected across the nation and the state. In many of New York’s larger cities, shootings were up 75 percent from the year before.
Every time another young person was shot, Samaria Gray felt despair. A licensed social worker and therapist, she had been hired by SNUG Street Outreach, a New York State-funded violence prevention program. Her unorthodox mission: to bring mental health care into the streets, to the people most likely to shoot someone or be shot. The goal was to reach people where they spend their time — on street corners, front porches and in pizza joints — rather than trying to draw them into traditional therapy settings.
Since Gray had started the job, shootings with injuries had almost doubled in Poughkeepsie. The street outreach workers Gray worked with had warned her that shootings would spike in the summer but, she said, “There really isn’t a way to prepare yourself,” for the emotional toll. “It’s just sad and tragic and wrong every time.”
SNUG — which takes its name from “guns” spelled backward — is spearheading one of several efforts nationwide aimed at using mental health interventions to decrease gun violence. What makes SNUG’s approach unusual is that the group is putting trained social workers directly in the streets, and doing much of their therapy there, as well. Often, sessions don’t begin and end in an hour. Therapy happens in casual conversations — even over text.
As she started her job, Gray had some clients who signed up for in-office counseling sessions (children in foster care and crime victims, for example). But connecting with likely shooters and gunshot victims was her biggest challenge. They were mostly Black men, a group that studies show is often reluctant to seek mental health support. Because SNUG participants are unlikely to sign up for traditional counseling, violence prevention programs often struggle to reach them with mental health services. SNUG uses the outreach workers — “credible messengers” who often have their own histories with the criminal justice system — to get introductions to people at risk of being involved in violence. In conversations with community members, the outreach staffers didn’t call Gray a therapist or a social worker. They called her “someone you can talk to.” And Gray knew better than to dive right into emotional conversations. She started with topics like music and local restaurants. Her “sessions” were strictly voluntary and always informal. Her goal was to help people see how fear and violence in their past had affected them, and the pallor it cast over their present.
“Most therapists are not going into a community to eat hamburgers with their clients. It would be considered inappropriate,” said Erika Mendelsohn, the statewide social work director for SNUG. “But to make this work we’ve really had to throw the rule book to the side.”
It will take many months to collect hard evidence that Gray and SNUG’s other social workers across the state are having an effect. But that didn’t diminish the urgency they felt last summer, as the shootings kept increasing.
The right people to do this work can be hard to find. SNUG program leaders say it’s helpful if they know the community, and feel relatable to residents. At the same time, they can’t be so ingrained that they have personal histories with the people they serve. Gray was a perfect candidate. She is Black and though she grew up in Hyde Park, a quiet, leafy town 10 miles to the north, she knows Poughkeepsie well. She also understands gun violence. When she was in college, two of her cousins were shot to death. She had already been thinking about becoming a social worker, but their deaths cemented her plans. “It was confirmation that that’s where I wanted to be,” she said.
Gray knew she had a tough job when she started. Poughkeepsie is a city of 30,000 — fewer people than fill an average baseball stadium. Although there are often more than 200 people shot in Buffalo, there are rarely more than 20 shot in Poughkeepsie. But the city’s scale is not always a good thing when it comes to violence prevention. Old rivalries can be hard to shed when you bump into the same people nearly every day. Even if a person is determined to make a fresh start, their reputation — and their old enemies — can be stubborn.
Progress came slowly. In the summer of 2020, Gray met a 16-year-old boy who was coming to the community center to study for his high school equivalency test. One of his brothers had been shot and killed five years earlier. Two others were serving long prison sentences. Gray could tell he was holding a lot of anger. She started texting him every few days, asking how he was. One time, when she checked in, he quickly responded: “Why are you asking? Do you actually care?”
After a few months, Gray asked the young man to drive with her to the banks of the Hudson River. She brought her laptop, and the two sat in her car playing with a songwriting app. As they looked at the computer screen, the young man casually mentioned a night when he had been staying at a friend’s house and awoke from a sound sleep to find the barrel of a gun a few feet from his face. The police had come to the home looking for something or someone — he wasn’t sure. “How did that make you feel?” Gray asked.
The young man shrugged. “That’s life,” he said. Gray quickly disagreed: “That’s not life,” she said. “That’s trauma.”
For weeks, Gray wondered if she had made any sort of impression on the young man. Then one day, when they were texting, he mentioned a time when a man he knew had been shot to death right outside his front door over a disagreement about a game of dominoes. “That was traumatizing for me,” he said. It was the opening she had been working toward. Now she could encourage him to think about how his past trauma was affecting his actions in the present day. When he became violent, she told him, he could ask himself whether it was because something had reminded him of a difficult incident from his past. Over time, he could learn to recognize those emotions as they surfaced, and develop some control over them.
It’s interactions like these that make SNUG social workers and program leaders hopeful that their approach is working, but it will take a while to have quantitative evidence. Researchers from the University at Albany School of Public Health have begun to evaluate the program’s impact, but their results aren’t expected until this fall. They are looking at factors like whether participants are progressing toward their goals and recovering from trauma, and whether they are less likely to be involved in a violent incident.
Studies show that people who have grown up around gun violence are more likely to be involved in shootings. Gray’s goal was to help people recognize how trauma affects them — especially in heated moments when they have a choice between lashing out and calming down.
Throughout the pandemic, Gray has worried about how forced isolation was affecting local young people. As infection rates dipped last summer, she began to search for ways to draw them out of their homes and engage them in something positive. Since her own childhood, she has found peace in writing music. She spoke to a youth program director who works in the building that houses SNUG about how they could acquire some recording equipment. They found a long blocked-off room in the basement, filled with dusty furniture and boxes. They cleared it out, and applied for a grant to buy a digital audio work space, a keyboard, speakers and other equipment.
Then, they started inviting anyone in the community to sign up for a recording session. Soon, their sign-up sheet was full of names. When community members came to the studio, Gray would try to start a dialogue. Sometimes she would ask them to send her a clip of their music. If it sounded angry, she would ask about it. If it included an emotional lyric, she would ask about that. Sometimes these clues would lead to a longer conversation in which, with luck, Gray could point out how a young person’s past experiences were affecting their behavior.
A few months after the studio was finished, one of the SNUG outreach workers invited a young man to come use it. Aveon, 20, had just been released from prison with an ankle monitor. Outside his home and the probation office, the SNUG office was the only place where he was allowed to spend time. He had arrived home filled with anxiety. He would lie awake, unable to sleep, peering out the windows, certain someone was coming to hurt him. “Every slammed door was a gunshot to me,” he said. Hoping to calm down, he smoked some marijuana, violating the terms of his probation. When his probation officer found out, Aveon thought about prying off his ankle bracelet and fleeing. But the SNUG outreach worker who had been his mentor urged him to pour his energy into music and own up to his mistake. He agreed, and started coming to the SNUG studio three times a week to record. Impressed, his probation officer agreed to give him a second chance. “For me [making music] is a positive coping skill,” he said.
In July, while Gray and the outreach workers were seeing success within the walls of the SNUG offices, outside the violence continued. A 16-year-old was shot in the arm on a city street. Another teen the same age was shot through his kitchen window. Gray said the young deaths were so relentless that, when she heard a shooting victim was in his 20s, she caught herself feeling a tiny but unsettling bit of relief. At least it wasn’t a child.
Because many people Gray works with never fully feel safe, Gray said it became more challenging to help people gain perspective and heal. “It’s not like they were overseas in a war and now they’ve come home,” Mendelsohn said. They’re often surrounded by the sources of their pain.
Gray found that even a small respite from the violence could be helpful. She would take people to a grocery store where they could walk through a big, peaceful greenhouse. They would spray paint rocks by the river. She once took a 17-year-old girl who was being abused by her boyfriend for a hike on the opposite side of the Hudson River. It was the first time the young woman could remember being outside of her hometown. Looking from a distance at the city that usually felt dangerous and all-consuming, its power seemed contained for the first time. See, Gray told her, you can get out. There is life outside Poughkeepsie.
In Gray’s first year, SNUG brought in an outside expert to help outreach workers, all of whom had lived through their own trauma, recognize how past experiences were affecting their current behavior. New York University researcher Susan Hansen explained that the way trauma impacts people has a scientific basis. In an experiment, once-playful lab rats became passive when they were exposed to a single cat hair. The same thing can happen with people, Hansen explained. Once an element of danger is introduced in their environment, it can stifle creativity and joy. If people can identify their own “cat hair” or trigger, Hansen explained, they can start to understand how it’s affecting them.
Ykim Anderson, a SNUG outreach worker who spent 13 years in prison on enterprise corruption charges, decided to decipher what was playing the role of “cat hair” in his life. He started to notice that he often got angry when other people made mistakes. He paused to think about where the feeling might have come from. “My father is very impatient when he thinks someone is taking too long to learn something,” he said. “He used to shout ‘THINK!’ at me.” When Anderson in turn got frustrated with SNUG participants though, it often upset them. “I realized I had to work on that,” he said.
Outreach worker Shahim Smith said he was able to use the “cat hair” training to teach the young people he was working with to control their anger. He noticed that one program participant — a 16-year-old — seemed to react violently every time he and his mother got into a power struggle. One time, he actually had to catch the young man’s arm as he swung at her. Later, Smith told the teen what he’d observed and suggested that he notice when it happened, and try to calm himself down instead of losing his temper. In the weeks that followed, he saw the teen stop himself before lashing out — both with his mother, and with his peers. “If you can do it at home, you can do it on the street,” Smith said.
Even as the days began to grow shorter in August, gun violence continued to rage in Poughkeepsie and across the nation. There had been 13 shootings over the summer — about as many as there had been in the city in all of 2020. Statewide, the number of people hurt in shootings had nearly doubled since 2019. The grim statistics frustrated Gray and her colleagues, and made it hard to prove that what they were doing was having an effect. In the long term, showing results will be crucial for the program to sustain state funding. “Our young people in our community are carrying trauma in their bodies and it’s festering,” Gray said at a Zoom meeting of community leaders and residents to address a string of late-summer shootings.
But despite the relentless shootings, Gray and her SNUG colleagues strongly believed they were doing something right. She noticed that people she was working with were learning to separate themselves from the things that upset them. She saw some making plans to go back to school. People who had worked with her were telling their friends that she was trustworthy. In the first half of 2021, nearly three times as many residents sought her out as had in the same period in 2020. SNUG social workers elsewhere in the state were seeing similar success. In the last quarter of 2019, they connected with 62 residents statewide. In the last quarter of 2021, they connected with more than 600.
Even as Gray started to feel she was making an impact though, other aspects of her job gnawed at her. She was paid through a local nonprofit agency — not by the state — and she found out that her salary was below market rate. She saw a listing for a school social worker position nearby, applied, and got it. It would mean a $17,000 annual raise, and more regular hours. It pained Gray to think about walking away from work she believed in, but in the end she couldn’t afford to pass up such a big raise. SNUG leaders are interviewing people to replace her, and say they have taken steps to ensure their salaries are more competitive.
State leaders agreed that, even in the face of rising violence and before hard evidence is available, the social work program shows enough promise that it is worth investing in. The state started by staffing each of its 12 sites with a total of 25 case managers and social workers. New funding announced by New York Governor Kathy Hochul will allow them to almost double that, hiring 21 more people, many of them at the five SNUG sites experiencing the highest volume of gun violence. They have also added music studios to eleven SNUG sites across the state. “There’s so much trauma in these communities, and so much healing that needs to be done,” Mendelsohn said. “This is a first step toward addressing it.”