Boston is ending its violence prevention program SOAR, which was introduced in 2019 as the latest iteration of the city’s longstanding street outreach service but made headlines over allegations of internal turmoil and mixed results.
Since last November, five people who worked for SOAR have sued the city, alleging unfair treatment by managers. In June, a former employee spoke out publicly about what he called deep-seated dysfunction in the program.
The decision to end SOAR, which was announced Friday, was relayed to the union for its 25 rank-and-file workers in a letter from Boston’s Department of Labor Relations. The letter said the city is redirecting its youth violence prevention efforts to follow a “public health framework.”
SOAR, which stands for Street Outreach, Advocacy and Response, is run by the Boston Centers for Youth & Families and has an annual budget of about $2 million.
José Massó, Boston’s chief of human services, said the city doesn’t intend to introduce a new program to replace SOAR. The city, which remains committed to youth violence prevention, runs programs to address those needs through the public health commission, public schools, and other departments, he said.
Earlier this month, the city announced the hiring of David Mayo as the director of its Office of Returning Citizens, which supports more than 3,000 people who return to homes in Boston each year from federal, state, and county prisons and jails.
In a statement, Massó said the city is retooling its approach to violence prevention. Mayor Michelle Wu said the city’s strategy will focus on public health measures and economic opportunity.
“We will continue to work relentlessly to support youth development, safe streets, and violence intervention across our agencies,” Wu said in a statement Friday.
Thomas McKeever, president of Service Employees International Union, Local 888, which represents SOAR’s unionized workforce, didn’t respond to messages left seeking comment. In its letter to McKeever, the city said it plans to end the program in January.
Leroy Peeples Jr., SOAR’s strategy and operations manager and the program’s sole non-union employee, said he was consulting with his supervisor about whether he could comment on the city’s decision.
Talia Rivera, who was tapped to lead the program in 2019 by then-mayor Martin J. Walsh, left her post in June.
In an interview, Massó said SOAR will continue operating until the city reaches an agreement with the union, and the city plans to help its workers identify possible employment opportunities.
“The work is not going to stop while we go through this process,” said Massó, who was employed as a street outreach worker from 2006 to 2008.
The city, Peeples, Rivera, and a fourth defendant are being sued in federal court by five people who worked at SOAR and allege they faced unfair treatment and retaliation.
The litigation was initiated last November, when Wu took office, and the allegations pre-date her tenure as mayor. An attorney for the plaintiffs didn’t return messages seeking comment.
In an interview with the Globe published in June, Donnell Singleton, a former resource coordinator for SOAR, described what he called inadequate efforts by some personnel to carry out the program’s mission and assist people affected by street violence. Other complaints surfaced during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when some SOAR staffers said city officials did not do enough to keep them safe.
Conan Harris who served as Walsh’s deputy director of public safety and managed a street worker program for The Boston Foundation, said it’s difficult to run the service with a unionized workforce in which supervisors don’t have the authority to make personnel changes on the fly.
Street worker programs, he said, need flexibility to pair youth with street workers they trust.
“You need the ability to remove people who are not working,” he said.
Matthew Parker, a former street worker who now serves as executive director for the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said SOAR’s workers weren’t visible enough in the community.
“If you’re not visible, how will people know to come see you to address issues that may be happening,” he asked.
Emmett Folgert, a community safety consultant who founded Dorchester Youth Collaborative in 1981, said street workers have been on the front lines of violence prevention in Boston for decades and he hopes their services will continue.
“I love street workers and I hope that something arises out of the ashes of this that saves the essence of why we’ve had them for so long,” he said.