Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Port City United’s staff of 40 tackling high-risk areas of community to ‘save lives’

PCU Executive Director Cedric Harrison addresses county commissioners Monday with progress on the anti-violence department created six months ago.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Six months in and thousands of calls for resources have already been answered, according to Port City United’s Cedric Harrison. The executive director and his team provided an update on their progress at Monday’s county commissioners meeting. The board voted in January to allocate $40 million over four years to an anti-violence strategy, spurred from a shooting at New Hanover High School last fall.

“As soon as we were hired, we hit the ground running,” Harrison told commissioners. “The first 90 days we got to work building a foundation, putting together our mission.”

READ MORE: What’s to come from NHC’s new anti-violence department? Port City United hires offer deeper look

To date, Port City United operates with a staff of over 40, has received more than 1,000 calls for resources, assisted 174 students across seven schools, mediated 38 individuals, hosted seven events, and identified four streets requiring a total of 10 lights to be installed or repaired, Harrison revealed.

Founded to help curb violence, PCU’s focus is to build resources and relationships in the community that “empower individuals and families to heal through the principles of nonviolence, equity, justice and solidarity.”

Its outreach is on three areas: mediation and outreach,  which includes sending “violence interrupters” into areas with high-crime rates; PCU Connect, which answers calls for resources 24/7; and sending community resources in schools.

Steve Barnett, mediation outreach supervisor, said the most fulfilling part of his job comes from efforts to de-escalate violence and respond to shootings. His team consists of four mediation specialists and three outreach workers tasked with building a rapport in areas prone to violence.

“The team is from these communities, we know who’s who, who’s the influencers, who’s up-and-coming, who’s high risk,” Barnett told commissioners Monday. “The high risk are the ones we focus on. They’re more inclined to be shot or shoot someone.”

Employees began venturing into neighborhoods known to house gangs or attract violence on May 23. Barnett said once some individuals realized who they were and what their job was, they were labeled the “peacekeepers.”

PCU has a framework in place to respond to shootings, based on Cure Violence Global Model’s public-health strategies, including detecting and interrupting potentially violent situations; identifying and changing behavior of those most likely to engage in violence; and changing group norms that perpetuate the use of violence.

The team responds in various ways depending on the type of shooting, whether it happens without injury, with injury or results in a homicide. The range of reactions scale from canvassing a neighborhood where shots were fired and handing out resource information, to engaging with the community and dealing with “major players,” to hosting candlelight vigils for the families whose loved ones have been killed.

Barnett explained it all depends on the family’s wishes and requires sensitivity. He said PCU has not responded to any fatal shootings yet this summer.

“I think it’s because of the work we’re doing,” he added.

PCU’s Connect launched at the end of June and supervisor Rashad Gattison said, of the more than 1,000 calls received, the top three resources sought are for employment, financial or housing assistance.

Twelve change agents are on call 24/7 at PCU’s call center to link individuals with necessary services.

“All calls are confidential and unrecorded,” Gattison explained. “We do case management; find resources and walk individuals through the resource.”

PCU also announced in April a partnership with nonprofits — Communities in Schools of Cape Fear, LINC and Voyage — to bring community resource coordinators to schools. 

Community Resource Coordinator Liaison Jarret Gattison oversees its management to “promote life skills, support high-performing academic success and ensure students and families receive needed services.”

A memorandum of understanding was signed in July to solidify the program.

Of the seven schools — New Hanover High School, Williston Middle School, DC Virgo, International School at Gregory, Rachel Freeman, Snipes Academy and Forest Hills — 19 community resource coordinators are on site to provide comprehensive case management. With a total combined enrollment of 4,212, Gattison explained, more than 700 students are within PCU’s target range to track academic progress, attendance and behavioral issues. 

Community resource coordinators are also tasked with providing dropout prevention services, supplemental and intensive academic and behavioral interventions, and increasing parental involvement.

New Hanover County Schools groups students into categories of tiers 1 through 3, based on level of needed support. Tier 3 is the highest, requiring the most attention — also PCU’s target audience.

As of Monday, there were 174 cases open by staff, assisting with connecting students and their families with mental health referrals, food or clothing assistance, as well as preparing students for future careers. Case managers act as positive mentors to students.

Commissioner vice chair Deb Hays asked how the schools were chosen and why Sunset Park wasn’t in the mix. Harrison explained the seven schools are what PCU was assigned by the school district, but he’s received calls from others wishing to receive resource coordinators.

“I’m glad people are calling and using the resources,” Hays said. “I’m sad we need them.”

Of the millions appropriated, the county put forth $867,522 for fiscal year 2022, which ended June 30. In the 2023 budget, the county has allocated PCU $2.9 million — $1.3 million in APRA funds and a little over $1 million from the revenue stabilization fund.

Harrison told commissioners with more financial resources, PCU could easily expand its staff, space and services to provide more help.

“I know it’s a daunting task and I’m sure it’s a scary task sometimes,” commissioner Jonathan Barfield said Monday. “You’re putting your lives on the line to help save lives in our community. You knew what you signed up for, but you’re making a difference.”

[Ed. note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Jarret Gattison and the number of street lights installed through the program, and to denote PCU did not respond to any fatal shootings this summer (original reporting said PCU did not respond to any shootings). Port City Daily regrets these errors.]

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