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Antiviolence program by Roca expands into Boston

Roca's youth workers knew they were having a breakthrough moment when the young man asked them for light bulbs.

This was a "really hard-core guy" like most of the 17- to 24-year-olds with whom Roca works, a young man with a violent felony on his criminal record, a young man who, a generation ago, would have been expected to cycle in and out of prison or end up dead before turning 30. His request for the light bulbs was a sign that he was open to help.

For more than 25 years, Roca has served Greater Boston from its Chelsea headquarters. It is now putting down roots in the heart of Boston with a new facility that opens Tuesday in the shadow of the South Bay House of Correction.


The 2,300-square-foot brick facility sits next to an auto body shop just off Melnea Cass Boulevard on Albany Street that Molly Baldwin, the founder and chief executive of the nonprofit, said is "somewhat neutral territory."

"We wanted to find a place where young people from different groups or gangs would feel comfortable coming to," she said.

Roca's expansion into Boston started in January when it became the state's first "pay-for-success" contract. The innovative financing tool, also referred to as a "social impact bond," works like this: Philanthropists and commercial investors put up the money a program needs to expand, and the state pays them back if the program is successful.

A program has five years to meet its goals, as determined by a third-party evaluator.

"This is a very different model of government than paying now and asking questions later," said Glen Shor, the state secretary of administration and finance.

Roca, which means rock in Spanish, is constantly crunching numbers to determine the progress of its young men as they make their way through the four-year program: Of those who had been there at least two years, 92 percent had no new arrests, 98 percent did not have a technical violation of their probation or parole, and 85 percent were employed for six months.


"I think Roca offers another tool, another option to keep these young men out of the criminal justice system and out of my facility," said Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, who runs South Bay and is chairman of Roca's Boston advisory board.

The eight-member board — composed of representatives of the Department of Mental Health, City Hall, and Tompkins's office — meets regularly to talk about how Boston's youth environment functions.

A member of City Councilor Tito Jackson's staff sits on the advisory board. Jackson, who represents Roxbury and parts of the South End and Dorchester, said the police department has a list of about 300 young men who are most likely to shoot or be shot in the next year, and these individuals drive about 80 percent of the city's violent crime.

"If we can disrupt, engage, train, and elevate the people who are drivers of violence . . . then we have an opportunity to make Boston the safest city in the country," he said.

Roca started accepting young men into the program in January, when it became the program that pay-for-success, which is expanding to include housing and education, would be molded around. The program is working with 87 young men from Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, and the South End.


Roca's transitional employment program is built knowing the men will relapse — slip back into destructive behavior — and it focuses on relentless outreach and engagement to change behavior and find jobs.

"I have a young man now that lives in Dorchester off of Washington Street, and this kid will not come down the stairs," said Miguel Torres, who has been involved with Roca since the inception of the Boston program. "He will only talk to me through the window."

The young man lives on the third floor, so Torres said he stands on the sidewalk, shouting over passing traffic and catching bits and pieces of the conversation.

But once a young man opens the door or returns a call, the conversation doesn't begin with lectures about avoiding jail time, breaking the cycle of poverty, or creating healthy relationships with family members. At first, youth workers say, there are kind gestures such as checking on the individual's well-being to see if he needs anything — food, shelter, clothing — because most have dropped out of school, many are unemployed, and some are homeless.

"The push for change is not immediate," Torres said. "If we don't have a relationship to bring them back after they relapse, then we've failed."

Torres and Maria Amezquita said they want theirs to be the first number dialed in a time of need, whether it is for something serious like a young man having just been shot at and the urge for retaliation is irresistible, or something simple like light bulbs.


"He was in the dark in the house because he didn't have money," Amezquita said. "And he hadn't eaten for a week."

Torres said the young man told them, " 'Man there's people that tell me I can ask for anything but they really don't mean it because when you do ask, they look at you funny.' "

He continued: "He was struggling to ask us to take him to Home Depot to buy him some light bulbs. It blew my mind."

Akilah Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.