Two years ago, New York State launched Operation SNUG, a program in which formerly incarcerated gang members who have turned their lives around negotiate potentially violent disputes between young people.
The program has had a positive impact in high crime communities, according to city officials. But the money has run out, and due to state budget cuts, funding won’t continue in the foreseeable future. Some SNUG programs (the organization takes its name from the word “guns” spelled backwards) will cease to exist entirely, while others hope to somehow continue their mission — without money.
After the success of Chicago’s Ceasefire program, which provides former gang members with jobs mentoring troubled youth and intervening in violent situations, New York State decided to adopt the model. In the fall of 2009, the state launched SNUG, a $4 million program that placed paid “violence interrupters” at eight centers in the most dangerous areas of New York City, Buffalo, Yonkers, Westchester, Albany, Rochester and Syracuse.
The state’s funding for SNUG ran out Sept. 30, and new funding was left out of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget this year as part of an effort to decrease New York’s $10 billion deficit, reported the Times Union.
Many of the SNUG programs that haven’t already shut their doors will do so within the next few weeks, depending on how much funding they have left over. In Yonkers, the SNUG office will close its doors on Nov. 30.
According to Yonkers SNUG member Charles Barnette, it was a “serious mistake” to end the program’s funding.
“These kids need somebody. They have no discipline. They’re not going to listen to some politician in a suit. When they look at us they see them,” Barnette said in an interview with New York NOW.
Members of the Yonkers SNUG group, along with local politicians, discuss the consequences of ending the program. Video courtesy of New York NOW.
In New York City, members of three different SNUG operations in Harlem, East New York and Far Rockaway claim the programs are making a difference. When two house party shootings occurred in Brooklyn last June, East New York SNUG members mobilized to do outreach and prevent further violence, reported NY1.
East New York’s SNUG group, operated by the community action group Man Up! inc, ran out of funding last month. Its members are now trying to continue their work on a volunteer basis.
“I had to lay off 10 people,” said Andre Mitchell, founder and director of Man Up! Inc. “But 80 percent of the team committed to doing 10 hours a week.”
Even without funding, Mitchell says volunteer SNUG members have been actively trying to prevent further violence in Brownsville every day since the shooting of a young mother, Zurana Horton, earlier this month. But even that level of dedication is not enough, Mitchell said, explaining that the SNUG model requires full-time interaction with at-risk young people. Members of his team can’t commit enough time to the project if they’re not being paid. He expressed frustration at the state for funding what was supposed to be a long-term program, only to kill it after two years.
The SNUG team in Harlem, operated by NYC Mission Society, voiced the same concern, and is currently working to find alternative funding sources before its money dries up. Harlem SNUG director Courtney Bennett said his only option to keep the program afloat may be to reduce SNUG’s service area.
Rockaway’s operation, run by the community group King of Kings, was the last SNUG team to be created, and claims it will be able to operate until June of 2012. It’s unclear what will happen after that.
“Since we started in July, we’ve gone 106 days without a murder,” said Lance Fuertado, director of the Far Rockaway SNUG group.
While there was an overall drop in gun crimes in all of the cities that have SNUG operations, it’s impossible to gauge how much of a factor the program has played.
“I think there is a great deal of value in SNUG and in the young men they hired,” Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “I think that, yes, SNUG did make a difference here.”
However, Fowler said he believes SNUG could be made better by focusing more on outreach before violent incidents occur, rather than mediating disputes while they’re happening.
SNUG members, and their supporters, however, see violence in poverty-afflicted areas working like a disease that spreads out of individual incidents. Therefore, stopping retaliation is central to their mission.
Some SNUG advocates are hopeful that they can convince legislators to renew funding in 2012, but in the meantime, many community groups will rely on the efforts of volunteers, and other non-violence initiatives like Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the NYPD’s gun buyback program.
On Saturday, Nov. 5, at noon, the East New York SNUG team and community members will march from the corner of Watkins Street and Pitkins Avenue in Brownsville, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and eventually to City Hall, where they will team up with Occupy Wall Street to protest budget cuts and violence in poor communities.
“We want to keep attention on the real issue of what has been taking place in this city when services are cut and we have chronic unemployment. We’ve been dealing with the Great Depression out here,” said Mitchell.