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Street workers Rodney Mitchell (left) and Paul Alves spoke with Adrianne Fonfield and her daughter Jaida in Mattapan earlier this month.
Street workers Rodney Mitchell (left) and Paul Alves spoke with Adrianne Fonfield and her daughter Jaida in Mattapan earlier this month. (Dominic Chavez/ Globe Staff)

Antigang workers face uphill climb

Street unit's mission, makeup shifted

A beat-up van with a City of Boston seal pulled into a Mattapan parking lot, and five people in matching navy T-shirts with "STREETWORKER" lettered on the back got out and began to walk the neighborhood. They are part of an elite crime-fighting force that Mayor Thomas M. Menino once hailed as the city's first line of defense against skyrocketing violence. Their job is to find and form relationships with gang members and try to steer them away from lives of crime.

As they approached a neatly kept three-decker, a woman sitting on the stoop rose. She had heard of the street-worker program, but she had never seen any of the workers on her block. She demanded to know why. One of the workers politely explained that they have a lot of meetings and events to attend, leaving less time for work on the streets.

"You need to be here," said the woman, Audrey Brown Perkins, who told the workers that she fears that her 8-year-old son will become another victim of the bloody gang warfare that took her 20-year-old son last July. "We need you here."

But Boston's street workers are not often on the streets these days, even as a new wave of gang violence sweeps neighborhoods like Mattapan. Streetworker ranks are just over half what they were in the 1990s, falling from about 40 to 24 this year. Those who remain spend much of their time at meetings and in community centers. City officials say union rules have all but precluded work after 9 p.m., when gang activity is high.

When street workers are on the street, some community leaders say, they are now too old and out of touch with the lives that gang members lead to be as successful as they once were.

Even the program's administrators acknowledge that the program has lost much of its effectiveness.

"We're doing the best we can, based on where we are today and with some of the changes that have occurred over the years," said Robert Lewis Jr., executive director of the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, the city agency that oversees the workers.

When Lewis went to work for the administration of Mayor Raymond L. Flynn to implement the program in 1990, crack-fueled gang wars threatened to spiral out of control. Wanting to intervene in gang members' lives before they turned violent and realizing they were not walking into social service agencies to ask for help, Lewis hired street workers to go to them, to the streets and stoops where they hung out.

Many of the first street workers were former gang members who spent night after night on gritty street corners persuading their former peers to lay down their guns and rejoin society. There was Sinbad from the X-men, The Mayor from Castlegate, and Butch from Intervale.

By 1992, the program had earned local awards and national attention for its innovative approach. By 1997, it was hailed as a critical component of the Boston Miracle, the crime- fighting effort that slashed homicides by nearly 80 percent during the '90s.

Half of the 40 street workers in 1992 were funded by the state, program directors say. The street workers were assigned to high schools and gangs in target neighborhoods.

But as crime declined through the late 1990s and early 2000s, the street workers focused less on outreach and spent more time at school assemblies, community events, and concerts, speaking to children or bolstering security. Everyone wanted to book a street worker.

"The street workers were like angels who could wave their hand and everything would change," program manager Chris Byner said of the reputation they earned when they were most active on the streets.

In September 1997, the workers joined the Service Employees International Union, Local 888. A few years later the state mandated that anyone working with children had to have a clean criminal record, and the city began requiring that every new street worker have at least two years' experience working with at-risk youth. The mandate drove up workers' average age and precluded most former gang members from being in the program, officials say.

Street workers now have less credibility with gang members and are less familiar with the neighborhoods that have the biggest problems, some community leaders say.

"Now they're the people that need to get walked around," said Warren Williams, a former gang member who spent nearly 10 years as a street worker before taking over management of a Mission Hill community center last year.

Over the years the number of street workers shrank as the state cut the program's funding. The city made its own round of cuts, as well. By 2003 there were just 12 street workers left, city payroll records show.

That was just about the time gang violence began to resurge in Boston. Menino, looking for ways to prevent further escalation, turned once again to the street worker program for help.

But when he asked them to begin working at night again, the union complained, saying the street workers had been working 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. for so many years that changing the shift was unreasonable. The union also raised concerns about workers' safety at night and potential disruptions to their lives outside work.

After negotiations, the city was able to get the union to agree to have some of the workers on duty until 9 p.m.

While workers in the program's early days attended only one meeting each day, a roll call at the start of their shifts, workers now spend many hours in meetings. "That part of it kind of gets frustrating sometimes," Byner said.

In addition, while workers were once assigned to specific gangs, they are now assigned to neighborhoods. And every neighborhood wants a street worker, regardless of gang activity there. Program directors say that has meant the hours they spend on outreach are spread across the city, diminishing their effectiveness in neighborhoods with high gang activity.

"When you put one street worker in a neighborhood, it's like a needle in a haystack," Byner said.

Most of the workers are passionate about the job, Byner said, and are not to blame for the changes that have chipped away at the organization's effectiveness over the years. Many spend time outside work hours visiting shooting victims in hospitals, accompanying young people to court, and speaking to teenagers in juvenile detention.

Emmett Folgert, program director at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, said that he has immense respect for the managers of the street worker program, but that the city should be allowed to relax its criminal background checks and change workers' shifts.

"We need outreach workers to be available at unusual hours," said Folgert, who consulted with Lewis when the program was created. "I don't see that changing."

This spring, amid repeated calls from city councilors to hire more street workers, Menino launched a new program in the Public Health Commission with eight nonunionized outreach positions that will require work at all hours, including after 9 p.m.

Some community leaders and elected officials say the additions are not enough.

"It's clearly a shadow of what it used to be," said Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty, who recently called for public hearings to discuss beefing up the street-worker program and placing additional workers in all of the city's high schools.

Earlier this month, the handful of street workers who had crammed into the beat-up van chatted about the Boston Celtics and the best places to eat as they trundled through some of the city's worst neighborhoods. One snored in the back seat as JAM'N 94.5 hip hop blared through the van's tinny speakers.

Throughout the day, the van made stops at community centers in Mission Hill, Roxbury, the South End, and Mattapan. At each stop, the workers greeted center staff. Sometimes they played a little basketball. Sometimes they walked the streets. Sometimes they tried to sell community center memberships to neighborhood residents.

Paul Alves, the worker who spoke with the mother on Morton Street in Mattapan, said workers get plenty done between noon and 8 p.m.

"We've got families to take care of," he said, adding that he believes that his nights are better spent with his own children. The odds of saving the kids on the streets are much lower, he said, "It's a 50-50 shot."

Donovan Slack can be reached at