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Foss: Program steers people away from the streets

Foss: Program steers people away from the streets

Foss: Program steers people away from the streets
1Life2Live executive director Jamel Muhammad speaks in his offices at the Steinmentz Homes.
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

Del doesn't hesitate to answer when I ask him whether he ever carried a gun.

"Of course," he tells me. "I had to." 

When Del carried a gun, he sold drugs on the streets of Schenectady. He carried a gun to protect himself. It was a dangerous lifestyle -- during our conversation, he points to a faded scar, caused by a bullet grazing his arm years earlier. 

Del no longer sells drugs and he longer carries a gun. 

"I have no need for a gun now," he says. "I'm not on the streets." 

Now 34, Del credits a Schenectady program, called 1Life2Live, with convincing him that there's another way to live. 

1Life2Live has mostly operated under the radar since launching four years ago, but the organization's work is a vital part of anti-violence efforts in the city of Schenectady. 

The program has a very specific focus: stopping the spread of street violence by persuading those most likely to perpetuate it to make different choices -- to walk away from a conflict rather than shoot someone in retaliation, for example. 

Headed by a former prisoner named Jamel Muhammad, who spent 17 1/2 years behind bars for drug-trafficking, 1Life2Live's three outreach workers respond to shootings and other violent incidents, seeking to contain and defuse them. 

"We ask them not to be violent," 1Life2Live outreach worker Toshena Haynes told me. "We want to make sure our city is safe -- not just for us, but for their kids, for their grandparents." 

Muhammad is from Albany, but his outreach workers grew up in Schenectady and have an intimate familiarity with the city's streets. 

Their close ties to the community -- and troubled backgrounds -- make them uniquely suited to spread a message of non-violence to people who might otherwise might not be willing to listen.  

"I tell people, 'I understand where you're coming from. If you need assistance, I could assist you,'" 1Life2Live outreach worker Shamel Davis, 31, told me. 

Davis spent 14 years in prison after pleading guilty to a weapons charge in connection with a 2003 Schenectady homicide.

"I knew early on, as I matured in prison, that I wanted to give back to the community, that I wanted to stop the revolving door of incarceration," Davis told me. He added, "I was out there [on the streets] like a lot of other young me, feeling like I needed money right now and that the only way to get respect is through violence." 

I wrote about 1Life2Live a couple years ago and came away convinced that it had the potential to make a positive impact. 

Two years later, I believe the program is making a difference, in large part because Schenectady is seeing a decline in violent crimes committed with firearms. 

Also significant: There have been no homicides in Schenectady yet this year -- knock on wood -- and just two in 2017. 

This quiet spell comes at a time when the city of Albany is experiencing an alarming spate of violence -- 17 homicides in 19 months, nine of which have occurred this year. 

At the Gazette, our immediate concern was spill-over violence -- the possibility that the violence in Albany would ripple over the border, causing problems here. But that hasn't happened -- again, knock on wood -- and it's worth asking why. 

One theory, which I subscribe to: Local anti-violence programs are having an effect. 

The state's GIVE (Gun Involved Violence Elimination) initiative has provided local law enforcement with funding for programs and staff focused on gun violence. In Schenectady County, GIVE is a collaborative effort involving city police, the sheriff's department, the district attorney's office and county probation. 

1Life2Live falls under GIVE's auspices, but operates independently of law enforcement, which is crucial to the program's success. If Muhammad and his outreach workers were perceived as narcs, nobody would want to participate in what is a voluntary program. 

"We do our part, but I won't take anything away from what the police or the sheriff's department are doing," Muhammad said. "We do outreach and services. Law enforcement respects this."

John LuBrant, chief deputy at the Schenectady County Sheriff's Office, told me that 1Life2Live is a "key component" of county and city efforts to reduce gun violence. 

"They do a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes largely unheralded," LuBrant said. 

It shouldn't, because 1Life2Live is doing difficult and important work. 

It isn't easy to convince people to change the way they live and think, and 1Life2Live does exactly that, taking people like Del and getting them to commit to a life of non-violence. 

The program targets people at high risk of being shot or shooting someone, taking them on as clients, finding them jobs and helping them address other problems, such as an addiction to drugs or alcohol. 

The idea is that people will reject criminal activities if they are given the tools and resources they need to do so. 

"We look at the home environment, because there's something in the home environment that's making them go out in the streets," Muhammad explained. "Violence builds over time, and it's because real needs are not being addressed and met."  

"Our job is to feel that there's hope and a way to change," Haynes told me. 

When Del -- whose full name I am withholding for his protection -- got out of prison in 2016, after serving six years on a robbery charge, he needed money and it wasn't long before he was selling drugs again. 

"They say you gotta do what you gotta do," said Del, who has a 15-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. "I felt like I needed to get back on the streets and make fast money." 

"I felt a lot of pressure," Del said. "I was fresh out of prison and I literally had nothing to show for it but a lot of wasted time." 

What saved him, he said, was his friendship with Davis. 

The two reconnected after Del got out of prison, and Davis invited him to participate in the 1Life2Live program. He was initially wary, but decided to give it a shot after Davis drove him around town, pointed out the troubled youths hanging out on the street and told him, "This used to be us." 

Davis got Del a warehouse job and convinced him to participate in a self-empowerment group that has taught him "to be calmer." 

"I was a hothead," he said. 

But that's changed. 

"This program does help you," Del said. "It can get you to a better place in life." 

Davis and Haynes, the outreach workers I spoke with, are siblings. 

On the weekends, they work unusual hours, hanging out at bars that are open late and other hot spots where there's a great risk of violence. 

"I hear about violent situations from my contacts, from being around them and spending time with them," Haynes told me. "I go to lunch with them. I talk to them." 

Muhammad and his team speak of Schenectady's drop in gun violence with noticeable pride. 

But they know there's still plenty of work to be done in a city where "people think violence is normal and acceptable," as Muhammad put it, adding, "A day with no gunfire, no ambulance sirens -- that's unusual." 

It is, and it shouldn't be. 

But that doesn't mean there hasn't been progress, or that we shouldn't celebrate programs that are making a difference, such as 1Life2Live. 

"I'm very proud of Schenectady," Haynes told me. "This is a community effort." 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. 

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