NEW HANOVER COUNTY — It’s laid out the vision, allocated the money ($39.6 million) and set aside the time (four years). Now, it believes it’s hired the right people.
By next month, New Hanover County’s Port City United department — led by well-known community activist Cedric Harrison — should be well into the start of its work. It will begin by deploying “violence interrupters” and outreach workers onto some of Wilmington’s most violent streets.
“We want to be able to draw the results that show them we deserve every dime to do this work,” said Harrison, who was named the director in March. “Honestly, I feel like we’re slightly still undervalued. You can’t put a price tag on people’s lives. All of our staff are pretty much risking their lives every day.”
The division was formed to curb violence following the August shooting at New Hanover High. Harrison’s team is expected to canvas neighborhoods — especially public housing and areas by low-income schools — where shootings are common. A group of “violence interrupters,” some with gang ties, will try to intervene in disputes before they escalate to shots fired, then connect those involved to resources to turn their lives around.
Port City United’s strategy is to tackle violence at its the root cause: poverty and a lack of opportunity.
“People that make the decision to act in violence usually have nothing to lose,” Harrison said. “We want to make sure that we’re able to provide resources for people to have a reason to live.”
In a media roundtable Friday, Harrison and others spoke about the goals of PCU. From delivering immediate groceries to landing residents long-term careers, the branch will focus its efforts on helping marginalized communities progress in their situation and, in the long run, reduce violence. It will advocate for change in smaller ways, too, like achieving safer environments. Harrison said one way is installing lights on 31st Street, where the director was shot in the face Feb. 6 and his friend, on a different night, was murdered.
Port City United, and its pricey tag, have been met with doubt from sectors of the community, but Harrison’s hire eased some minds as the Wilmington native has an established reputation in the city. He went to school at New Hanover High, and over the last decade launched the nonprofit Support the Port with the mission to advance racial equity.
PCU still has a series of challenges to overcome, some that Harrison acknowledges himself. For one, the amount of need in the community may outweigh the number of people and organizations willing to help.
Harrison said that’s his biggest fear. If he and his team fail to follow through on their promises, they could “possibly have enemies for life.”
Port City United is broken into three components.
At its heart is Cure Violence Global, the model in which teams mediate any brewing conflicts they, using their street crediability, become aware of. The model is international, with North Carolina programs in Greensboro and Charlotte.
Harrison admits some of the hired mediators are people who made “poor decisions” in the past but are reformed and still possess influence and relatability. They also can serve as an inspiration to people who are going through similar struggles.
Steve Barnett, the team’s supervisor, is a former employee of TRU Colors, a local brewery that hires active gang members. Port City United is comparable to TRU Colors in the sense both strive to prevent violence by extending economic prosperity. The brewery deploys a similar strategy to Cure Violence Global. Harrison said there is a large difference, though, since the brewery is a for-profit business. He said he would use it as a resource to get clients jobs, with a $37,500 starting salary.
TRU Colors has a range of critics for its acceptance of gangs, while others praise it for shedding light on important issues. Harrison said gangs are “just a label for their group,” comparing them to a brotherhood like a fraternity.
“I think it’s an easy, low-hanging fruit to always try to poke at gangs,” he said, pointing out that only a handful of the homicides last year were confirmed gang-related.
Harrison views the team members’ experience in gangs as leverage, and the county intentionally hired people like Barnett for their lived experiences.
New Hanover County job applicants aren’t required to reveal criminal history when filling out applications, but the county does run a background check once candidates are selected. It then weighs the facts of any convictions against the duties of that position.
Along with the three mediators, three outreach workers will work on foot in high-risk neighborhoods to connect neighbors to resources.
“Basically, look at it as, like, if the Harrelson Center had people that just walked through the neighborhood all day,” Harrison said.
Call for help
In addition to the outreach workers on the streets, by June, neighbors will be able to reach a 24/7 call center for support with transportation, housing, therapy, food or other services.
That’s the second component of the department. Supervised by Rashad Gattison, PCU Connect is the one vision that has changed the most since Harrison came on board. Originally, the call center was planned as a place where experts could monitor threats or comb through social media for hints of escalating conflicts — but Harrison said that wasn’t “what he signed up for.”
“We’ve hired people that already know what’s going on,” Harrison said. “They don’t need social media.”
Instead, the call center will be a route for community members to access services. Harrison said they don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but the county will eventually step in if a nonprofit doesn’t have the capacity to fill the need or a specific resource is lacking. Starting fiscal year 2023, the county is budgeting an additional $1.2 million to go to nonprofits for ramping up services. Those organizations are yet to be determined.
“Right now, we’re still flying the plane while we’re building it,” he said. “And I honestly don’t know what resources we’ll be able to really guarantee people. That’s one of my biggest concerns is that we’re going to over promise and under deliver.”
The anti-violence plan was originally intended to make schools safer, but it has significantly deviated from a campus focus to more of a communitywide approach. Some of that change occurred after county commissioners scaled back an ambitious plan to dive into $350-million savings from the hospital sale and had to find new funding sources.
However, a third major component of Port City United is placing 22 caseworkers in seven at-risk schools: International School at Gregory, Snipes Academy of Art and Design, Forest Hills Global Elementary, Rachel Freeman School of Engineering, D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy, Williston Middle School and New Hanover High School. The resource coordinators are coming from well-known nonprofits: Communities In Schools of Cape Fear, Voyage and Leading Into New Communities.
“They’ll also be mentors. They’ll also be just leaders,” Harrison said of the caseworkers. “They’ll be big brothers and big sisters.”
Their role, in addition to positively influencing the youth, is to assist the students’ families long term.
“Lil’ Ray Ray’s coming to school. He’s got the same clothes on three days in a row,” Harrison said. “We want to be able to figure out how we can change that, and not just put a Band-Aid on it. Putting a Band-Aid on it would be giving him clothes for the rest of the week. But healing the wound would be figuring out how we could actually provide his household with the right resources so that they’ll be able to provide him with clothing forever.”
Part of PCU’s plans includes hosting job fairs. Also, starting in the fall of 2023, the county is partnering with Cape Fear Community College to help people seek higher education. It is looking into covering the cost of tuition and eliminating barriers, like lack of transportation or childcare.
Despite now being government employees, Harrison doesn’t perceive maintaining trust as an obstacle.
“We’ve only been government employees for like three or four weeks now,” Harrison said. “We’ve been members of the community for all our lives.”
As for law enforcement, he said the extent of their relationship will be requesting data and possibly giving officers a “heads up” to establish a presence when tensions are high in certain areas. He’s not inclined to report people who commit non-violent acts, like selling marijuana.
“I feel like mass incarceration is a direct tie to enslavement,” he said. “And I don’t want to put any more of my people in shackles and chains.”
The county is allocating millions in tax money and resources at a time when the local sheriff and police chief are boasting dwindling crime rates. Regardless, Harrison said the crime appears to affect more people recently.
“I think nowadays people walk outside the door and are slightly fearful, you know, and just kind of leave and go handle whatever they need to handle it and then get back into the house of safety,” he said.
Last Wednesday, bullets flew on Meares Street at Jervay. There was property damage, but no one was killed or injured. Still, there was trauma. Yet, no therapists were brought in, as it was after the shootings at Long Leaf Park and New Hanover High last year. That’s something Port City United will provide from now on.
The department plans to track crime trends, but Harrison can’t predict when Wilmington will feel safer. He said when teens are back on basketball courts, neighbors are walking the sidewalks and kids are playing hopscotch, that’s when they’ll feel the change.
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