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Street Outreach Workers Should Be Deemed Essential

They are key to keeping communities safe not only from violence, but from a global pandemic, too.

Kitiya Pendarvis, a worker with nonprofit Martha's Table, helps load bags of fresh produce to distribute to people in underserved communities during the novel coronavirus outbreak earlier this month in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As the COVID-19 virus has forced cities and states to impose shelter-in-place orders, we’ve watched local leaders identify the critical frontline workers who deserve exemption from these rules. Street outreach workers need to be on any city’s list of essential workers — not just during COVID-19, but also as likely budget crunches force tough decisions. 

Despite widespread stay-at-home orders, and overall declines in crime, community violence has persisted. Mayors and police chiefs in a number of cities have pleaded with residents to stop the violence as health and criminal justice systems are stretched thin or at capacity. Street outreach workers are key to keeping these communities safe not only from violence, but from a global pandemic, too. 

Outreach workers typically function as a sort of civic diplomat, intervening in the interpersonal cycles of violence that sit at the core of so much injury and death in America today. They work within communities to help set standards of acceptable behavior and discourage individuals from resorting to violence to settle disputes. 

This life-saving responsibility has taken on a new angle as vulnerable populations have faced a different threat — COVID-19. During the early days of the pandemic, key information and resources failed to reach some of the people most at risk. That’s why outreach workers began to get involved in public education campaigns that promote social distancing, hand-washing, wearing masks, and dispense necessary supplies. 

Already several cities, including Newark, New Jersey and Stockton, California, have deemed outreach workers as essential while expanding their role to include distributing food in high-risk neighborhoods and individuals. And in Chicago, 200 street outreach workers continue to patrol the city’s streets in an effort to fulfill a new dual public health role: helping communities avert gun violence while simultaneously informing residents about the outbreak.

Recognizing the critical role that outreach workers fulfill, The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence has issued specific recommendations on how local governments can maintain and fund outreach workers in the fallout of the ongoing pandemic, including:

  • Leveraging the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) to fund critical violence intervention work: Many states have typically not used these federal crime victim dollars to meaningfully invest in violence intervention programs working with victims of violence. In recent years, governors and attorneys general in states such as New Jersey have leveraged federal VOCA Assistance funds to support violence intervention efforts focused on crime victims and families at highest risk of re-injury from community violence.
  • Allowing street outreach workers to be exempt from shelter-in-place-orders and recognized as essential service providers. Street outreach workers have a meaningful role providing ongoing support, counseling, and conflict mediation at times of heightened trauma and should thus be exempt from shelter-in-place orders and provided with safety equipment and access to state-subsidized child care services to continue their work.

Even before COVID-19, cities were learning how outreach workers were key to preventing community violence. Now, as these frontline responders step up to help our most vulnerable populations respond to a pandemic, it has become clear that these roles are essential.