Operation SNUG Gets New Headquarters in Harlem

By Jeff Mays on January 16, 2012 12:52pm 

Operation SNUG says their new headquarters will better help them to prevent episodes of violence in Harlem.
Operation SNUG says their new headquarters will better help them to prevent episodes of violence in Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — For members of Operation SNUG, a program that uses ex-gang members to prevent shootings and violence, there are times when duty calls after hours.

When its space in the New York Mission Society's Minisink Townhouse at 142nd Street and Lenox Ave. is closed — and a mediation is needed to bring together rival crews — the members have to improvise.

"There were times when we had to do a negotiation in the park — at night. Another time we had to find a church," said Robin Holmes, project director for Operation SNUG,  which takes its name from the word guns, spelled backwards.

With the opening of SNUG's new headquarters at 653 Lenox Ave., between 142nd and 143rd streets, finding a place for striking a late night compromise should no longer be a problem.

Karim Chapman, 31, outreach worker supervisor, showed the partitioned space in the storefront where they have already helped settle disputes. The headquarters will also be a place for young people to hang out, look for job, create a resume, and find educational opportunities to move them away from a life of violence.

"We are located in the middle of a lot of beefs but this is a neutral zone," said Chapman. "We want kids to use this as a safe house."

The opening of the space, funded with a state grant secured by state Sen. Bill Perkins, comes at a time when SNUG believes it is making progress in the 72-block zone it covers from 127 to 145 streets between Lenox and St. Nicholas avenues.

There have been more than 200 mediations, and Chapman says there was a long stretch in the past year without a shooting in the area.

Still, the program, modeled after the successful Ceasefire Chicago initiative, is facing funding difficulties. It has received $150,000 in emergency funding to keep the group operating through February. After that, a $160,000 city grant secured by Council Speaker Christine Quinn should keep SNUG going through March, Holmes said.

Other sources of funding are under way, including a $200,000 grant through Harlem Hospital to work with victims of violence. But a permanent source of the $500,000 in yearly funding needed to keep the effort going has yet to be secured.

As the program grows, Holmes said she gets calls from other parts of Harlem looking for SNUG's services to prevent outbreaks of violence. That's why she's optimistic the funding difficulties will change.

"People are seeing we've had an impact. They are asking us to come into East Harlem," said Holmes. "My hope is that the city and state sees the importance of this program and begins to replicate it."

In the meantime, computers and posters in SNUG urge young people to make good decisions when contemplating violence. A support beam painted with blackboard paint allows for the posting of positive messages.

"We are moving forward," said Courtney Bennett, director of community and government relations for the New York Mission Society. "If you stop shooting you can change your life."

After the opening, a group of New York Police Department rookies from the 32nd Precinct gathered with SNUG workers, community members and visitors from the CeaseFire Chicago initiative to screen "The Interrupters," a documentary that followed the efforts of CeaseFire Chicago workers for a year.

Cobe Williams, who was featured in the documentary, explained to the new recruits the risks involved in the job.

"When we take this job, we know it's dangerous. We are working with people everyone has closed their door on. We are working with the shooters. We work with the person who is going to get shot," said Williams, now a national community coordinator for CeaseFire Chicago.

The recruits asked about the relationship between themselves and the violence "interrupters." The workers from SNUG and CeaseFire Chicago explained that they stay out of the way of police who are conducting an investigation or making arrest.

The workers are not trying to solve murders, but instead prevent the murder from happening. That means it's not always in the outreach workers' best interest to be seen as being too friendly with cops.

"There are kids out there who will shoot you. We don't want that. We don't want them to shoot anybody," said Chapman.

Marcus McAllister, a CeaseFire Chicago national community coordinator, said the initiative is spreading. There are new sites opening in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Phoenix. Ceasefire Chicago workers have been in Cape Town, South Africa, helping to set up a similiar program. They have international partners in Iraq and Kyrgyzstan, too.

Part of the program's success may have to do with its approach of addressing violence as a public health problem. An outreach worker, similar to an infectious disease specialist, looks for violence at the source and seeks to keep it from spreading.

"A crucial part of this is having a space where you can have high-risk guys. You need to be open late so people can move in and out. The space needs to be a safe haven," said McAllister, who served several years in prison.

"I know this looks like a 'gang thing' but it's not. The program is set up to solve conflict," said McAllister. "At the end of the day, all we are trying to do is change the way people think."

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