Philadelphia CeaseFire (146253)
Credit: Philadelphia CeaseFire/Facebook

The 22nd Police District in Philadelphia has the highest number of homicides and shootings in the city. One community organization is committed to stopping gun violence by changing the way people think about violence.

“Violence is an epidemic,” said Marla Davis-Bellamy, director of Philadelphia CeaseFire, a partner of CureViolence-Philadelphia. “We want to interrupt the violence and help the individuals change their behavior.”

Philadelphia CeaseFire uses the CureViolence model, which focuses on addressing violence as a health issue. People and their communities can change through the understanding that conflicts can be resolved in ways other than by using guns.

One of their success stories is Elvin Ortiz. He went to jail at age 13 for drugs and weapons possession and wasn’t released until age 25. Once released, he expected to return to life on the streets, until outreach worker and childhood friend Shakia Fudge intervened.

“I came home from prison and I didn’t have an address to use, so they made me go to a shelter,” Ortiz said in a CureViolence video.

As he wiped the tears from his face, he added, “Shakia said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll have you out of there in less than a month.’ On my 29th day, I had a job and that’s when I knew it was serious.”

Now, with a full-time job and his own apartment, Ortiz has successfully changed the course of his life and he thanks Fudge for it.

“I knew if she didn’t give up on me, I was going to give her my all,” he said. “That’s why I’m still with it, and my life has changed dramatically in the last couple months. I’m grateful I didn’t have to go back to jail. I’m grateful that someone believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”

Philadelphia CeaseFire is different from other outreach programs in that many of its workers are ex-offenders. Davis-Bellamy believes they can effectively connect and develop bonds with high-risk youth.

“These individuals don’t walk with fear, and because they are young men and women, our clients respect them,” she said. “They see them as individuals who make a difference and have changed their lives. So when people see that, they know they can change theirs as well.”

Outreach workers such as Fudge closely monitor street activity, so if something happens, they are there to intervene. They use data on violence and prevalent shooting activity to determine where to focus their efforts.

With approximately 130 clients, Philadelphia CeaseFire groups canvas targeted areas daily for two to three miles.

“They are physically walking in these hot-spot areas, engaging with the community about the work we do,” Davis-Bellamy said. “They are educating young people about not utilizing guns and finding better ways to resolve disputes with one another.”

The outreach workers are deeply engaged with high-risk young people through mentorships and are mandated to make five home visits a month and maintain relationships with the clients.

“We identify resources like jobs or relationships, and we meet them where they are at and provide support,” Davis-Bellamy said.

Philadelphia CeaseFire focuses on five core components: community mobilization, youth outreach, public education, leadership involvement and criminal justice participation.

According to Davis-Bellamy, arguments are the primary cause of violence.“That’s why we are replicating the CureViolence model in the 22nd Police District,” she said.

In 2011, when the Philadelphia CeaseFire program began, the 22nd Police District had 188 shooting victims and 47 homicides. In 2013, the district had 126 shooting victims and 26 homicides.

Philadelphia CeaseFire maintains good relations with the Police Department because the two organizations have the same objective.

“In terms of reduction of homicides and shootings, we both want to see a reduction,” Davis-Bellamy said. “We respect each others lane and role. The police have a job to do, and they aren’t trying to interfere because of their job. The more success we have, the more success with reduction of homicides and shootings.”

After the Baltimore riots, Davis-Bellamy recognized the need to give young people a voice. She does so by organizing various events for the youth.

“We partner with the Philadelphia housing community to do something special for the teenagers,” she said. “We want to give them the opportunity to express themselves throughout the summer and do whatever we can to engage people on various levels.”

The most important part of the job for Davis-Bellamy is that they are getting through to young people and that they are making an impact on the community by providing needed resources to the clients and their families. “We also want people to think differently about violence, understand prevention and getting ahead of the curve,” she said.